Hahrie Han’s book “How Organizations Develop Activists” couldn’t have come soon enough for people who identify as organizers. As she says, “organizing is hard” and it’s easily misunderstood. This book provides vocabulary and distinctions that haven’t been articulated with as much clarity or empirical support as they are here. It is certain to impact the world of practitioners in at least three important ways. First, training curricula for organizers should start incorporating Han’s distinction between mobilizing and organizing, leading to better trainings for activists. Second, many organizations should increase their budget allocation for the organizing department and supporting tools. Finally, more attention should be paid to developing (and better formalizing) the “conscious reflection” practices that Han shows are central to organizing.
You have to fight for budget allocation to support organizing in an organization. If you can’t make your case clear or even adequately distinguish your program from other activities you’re going to lose out. I co-founded a startup, Empower Engine, that provides mapping software to field departments in political campaigns. It provides neighborhood-level detail visualizations of field data for volunteers and organizers, not just stakeholders, who typically view campaign data reports at much more macro level. I’ve found that a smaller than expected segment of our market understands and believes in the importance of “pushing intelligence down” to the organizers and activists on the ground. Han’s framework has already made my pitch more effective and clear. I am now much better equipped to explain that our maps support the ongoing training and development of organizers and volunteer leaders, and can communicate how this fits in with the organization’s goals.
The success of organizing itself is heavily dependent on one’s capacity to communicate one’s organizing methodology. A good organizer will help “connect the dots” for people, and convincingly explain how the organization achieves its goals through this specific theory of change. By developing our capacity to articulate the “how” of organizing, Han helps us do it better. I’m positive that Han’s work will soon make its way into organizer training materials.
The real-world implications of these ideas can be seen in the role of “offline” vs. “online” organizing efforts in organizations. In election campaigns, these efforts are usually directed by entirely separate departments: “field” and “digital”. Each has it’s own champions and detractors as the departments compete for budget and influence. As with a host of other binaries identified in this book, Han presents the evidence that we’re better off if we set down our armaments in the debate between two sides and instead think harder about how they can best work together. Each side can benefit by strategically integrating with the other, when and how it makes the most sense.
The example Han uses for this is a good one. Organizers need as many leads as possible, and these leads can be provided by online mobilizing tactics. Mobilizers need the ability to actually turn people out in the real world in sufficient numbers, in a consistent way, in order to develop real power. This requires the relationships and deep sense of meaning that organizers build with members. In turn again, the leaders developed through organizing will help build the lists and generate content used by mobilizers. Han helps us see that placing these tactics in the proper relation to one another in a mutually beneficial ordering, is the important thing to consider, not which one is best.
By better establishing the role of organizing in relation to the rest of an organization’s tactics, we may be able to carve out enough space to get better at it. If we do see increased investments into organizing it would be wonderful to go deeper into the meaning and character of the “depth” that Han explains is central to the organizer’s craft. She correctly points out that relatively little is actually known about how to do it well. How do we get better at the qualitative aspect of what organizers do? This book points us in the right direction, but much more work is needed. Here’s why.
Han repeatedly calls attention to the intensely interpersonal work that organizers do. They build relationships, foster community, and provide activists with “a wide range of cognitive, technical, emotional, and motivational coaching.” Doing all this well, while maintaining one’s motivation (not to mention sanity) is a tall order, even for seasoned organizers. It’s informal and can sometimes even border on therapy. It is also often done by the young and inexperienced. This is what organizers are out there doing in the world, even while lacking a robust method for providing this type of deep interpersonal support. It’s not difficult to imagine scenarios in which this can go awry, even just prosaic ones in which organizers become just overwhelmed by it all.
Organizers and activists are passionate about the issues they work on often because of perceived injustice in the world. This motivation – to right the wrong – is often spurred by first or secondary trauma from encountering it in the world. War, poverty, the effects of a broken criminal justice system, these things cause real pain and suffering in peoples lives. If an organizer is effectively supporting the “emotional needs” of an activist they’re bound to encounter secondary trauma. How can they do so in a manageable and healthy way? Are we including that content in our trainings? My experience tells me that we haven’t done so adequately. I’ve filled the gap for myself by drawing on resources like Mindfulness, Non-Violent Communication, and Trauma Stewardship, but it’s a cobbled together, largely individual pursuit. It would be fruitful for practitioners and scholars alike to look more deeply at formalizing the methods of emotional support (both for individuals and communities) in the context of organization-driven activism. One could make the case that there might even be an ethical imperative to do so.
Along these lines, Han mentions the practice of using “formalized reflection” to “develop long-term motivations and capacities” but this section really leaves me wanting much more. It is out of the intended scope of this book, but the need still exists in a very real way in the world of practitioners. Along with impacting budgets and training curricula, I’m hopeful that Han’s extremely valuable contribution will also serve as the foundation for more reflection by practitioners and scholars alike on the “how” of formalized reflection in the context of organizing.