By Vanessa Rule
Anyone who has been an activist for a long time has probably lamented that the level of change they have witnessed is relatively small compared to the vision that propelled them to action in the first place. They might also tell you how hard that work has been and how volunteers tend to cycle in and out of their projects. Most activists do their work without a road map they can follow, or a framework of skills they can learn, apply, and teach others, to effectively build power and strengthen the movement.
In How Organizations Develop Activists, Hahrie Han provides such a framework, with clear examples and best practices, so newcomers and seasoned organizers can see where they are in the process of building power and what the next steps are. Han’s clear and concise writing is accessible and extremely relevant to a range of audiences, from people who are volunteering in a civic association for the first time, to organizations interested in learning what they can do to build, and keep, new volunteer capacity, to seasoned organizers and social movement scholars. The book examines how different civic associations have been able to leverage the latent power of interested volunteers to build power and effect change. Han draws best practices from the case studies she lays out at the beginning, and she illustrates them with real life situations shared through first person voices of organizers describing where they succeeded or failed, and why. I found myself easily relating to these situations, having been in similar ones myself, and thus able to imagine how I would apply these lessons to my own work.
One of the most challenging things about organizing is getting perspective on where one is in the process, and finding the space needed to reflect and learn. This book provides such a space. Reading it triggered many “aha” moments of understanding and ideas for how I, and the volunteers I work with, can improve our practice to become better organizers. For those of us who began our organizing work intuitively, or fell into it by accident or necessity, this book is like putting on a pair of glasses; instead of feeling your way around, you see clearly where you are in the process and what your options are. It makes the implicit explicit. For those who are new to organizing, it offers tools and concepts to start on the iterative and experiential path of learning how to organize, and serves as a manual one can go back to clarify and deepen learning.
Han provides concrete examples, down to the call log of an organizer’s coaching session with a volunteer and an analysis of what transpired. She gives advice on some of the more challenging questions facing organizers, such as how to increase volunteers’ level of commitment and participation without burning them out. She clarifies the difference between organizing, mobilizing, and “lone wolf” strategies and how to balance them within your own organization. Quoting Joy Cushman, the Campaign Director for PICO, Han writes, “The organizer thus makes two [strategic] choices: 1) to engage others, and 2) to invest in their development. The mobilizer only makes the first choice. And the lone wolf makes neither.”
Han’s book describes the secret to building grassroots power: it lies in how people work together to find agency and achieve purpose. In her example of groups that have successfully engaged and trained leaders, she describes how they first build relationships with each other, form interdependent teams working to achieve common, time-bound goals, bring their respective resources to the table and together develop a common story, train and coach each other to become more effective in their roles, and in turn, teach others how to do the same.
This book comes at a critical time when many people have forgotten how to organize, and the balance of power is heavily weighted on the side of money and corporations, not the people. The road map and tools in this book can be used to revitalize our collective spirit, and serve as a lifeline to our fading democracy. One might assume that the crises we are facing would be enough to move people to action, much less do it in an organized fashion. Han writes, “The [external] pressures alone were not enough to guarantee that the chapters would adopt an organizing approach… the experience and willingness of the core leaders, the organizational narratives they created, the understanding about power, and the structures that were in place also mattered.”
Organizing is hard and messy. How Organizations Develop Activists is a short read but packed with concrete and applicable information about how to think about organizing and practice it. It pulls the strands of good organizing together into an elegant framework explained through real examples and concrete steps organizers can take. It will become a trusted frame of reference for activists to understand their experience on the ground and increase their ability to make strategic choices that will intentionally build their people power.