Reflections One Year Later on How Organizations Develop Activists

By Hahrie Han

It is both humbling and exciting to read so many responses to How Organizations Develop Activists, and to develop perspective on the ways it is being understood, interpreted, and put to use in the world. When I was finishing graduate school and deciding whether to stay in academia, one of my mentors encouraged me by describing academia as a good “perch” from which to do work that dialogues with both scholarly thinking and practical politics. Although I have strived throughout my career to stay on this perch, it is rare (and gratifying) to have the opportunity to gain such insight into the ways my work fulfills that promise, and the places where questions remain.

I hope at some point to have the opportunity to sit down (virtually or in person) with each author to discuss her/his insights about the book in greater depth, for each essay sparked new thinking for me. Lacking the space to detail all of those thoughts here, I thought I would focus on several themes that emerged across multiple essays and point towards future directions for research. Some of those themes coincide with the ideas I have been ruminating over in the year since I finished the bulk of work on the book, and others represent new streams of thought.

Perhaps the most consistent theme to emerge across reviews from both scholars and practitioners is the question of how we create the conditions that make it more likely that organizations will choose to engage in the work of what I call transformational organizing. How Organizations Develop Activists argues that organizations need to do both mobilizing and organizing to sustain high levels of activism. It is much easier, however, for organizations to make the choice to mobilize—it is, relatively speaking, easier to do (though doing it well is still a challenge!) and the outcomes become visible more quickly. When organizations are making decisions about how to allocate scarce resources, mobilizing alone becomes a tempting strategy. And, as Baker, Conway, Cushman, Glusenkamp, and Karpf variously point out in their reviews, those strategic choices themselves are conditioned by structural and environmental conditions within organizations and our political world—such as the narratives we tell about how organizations can build power to win the battles they wage, and the kinds of outcomes funders encourage.

The key question to ask, then, is how do we change those conditions themselves? Conway argues that we need to “organize around the concept of organizing itself” and Cushman asks whether organizations are “limiting the scale of [their] power by standing in [their] own way.” Baker, Glusenkamp, and Rule reference the need to counteract the narrative that the hard work of organizing doesn’t matter, while Karpf and Hodgdon point specifically to the need to shape that narrative in the funding community. For academics, the challenge is to reconsider the debate Walker references between the role of structure and agency in shaping strategic choices by considering the ways structures themselves can change. In her book Diminished Democracy, Theda Skocpol argues that elites will not organize masses unless they have the incentives to do so. Emerging from this discussion of How Organizations Develop Activists, then, is the question of what kind of work needs to be done to create incentives for elites to do the foundational work of building real citizens who can be active agents within our democracy. Conceptually and practically, in other words, we should not take the givens about the structures and conditions that shape our political world as a given.

Another theme that emerged from multiple reviews is the question of how the findings from How Organizations Develop Activists apply to other kinds of organizations, working in different issues areas, countries, or across boundaries of race and class. Meadows offers an insightful comparison to her work studying North Carolina’s LGBT movement, and other authors push us to ask how these findings apply outside the white, middle-class constituencies that constituted most of my sample in the organizations I studied, or in other countries.

At its core, the book makes the case for focusing research on the question of how we create the transformative spaces through which people are able to develop their own agency—to reclaim their citizenship in a political world that has, in ways many reviewers highlighted, stripped it away. As such, questions about the applicability of these findings to constituencies who lack the resources of the predominantly white, middle-and-upper class subjects I studied in How Organizations Develop Activists are at the center of my (and, I hope, others’) research in the coming years because they should be at the center of the effort to rebuild a robust democracy. In their reviews, Oser and Michelson both point to the ways the book intersected with their work mentoring students. Initially surprised, I realized upon further reflection that the points they make about creating opportunities for young people to practically and conceptually develop their own citizenship are tied to this core theme about the importance of those transformational spaces. Figuring out how to do the foundational work of building those transformative spaces has micro, meso, and macro questions with which scholars can grapple.

I wrote the book in hopes that it could speak to scholars in multiple disciplines—from political science, sociology, and elsewhere—and to practitioners working in many different kinds of organizations. It was a privilege to hear responses to my book from such an august and varied group of people and I look forward to finding ways to continue the conversation that was begun here in the months and years to come.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, How Organizations Develop Activists

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