Matt Price’s lessons for network organizing

Spent some time last week hashing out some big ideas with Matt Price of the Environmental Support Centre and my Vancouver-based colleague Jodie Tonita.

After a rather rambling conversation and a cold beer, Matt pulled a few great lessons for network organizing out of the ether:

  1. Set clear power building objectives
  2. Practice participatory engagement
  3. Let the issues choose you
  4. Create structures that allow nimbleness
  5. Train and retain organizers
  6. Reframe environmental messages

Let’s look at each of these a bit more closely:

Set clear power building objectives

As Saul Alinsky [reminds us](http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0679721134/qid=1092610816), the purpose of organizing is to build power. Power allows you to make change. Campaigns that do not build power cannot make or defend long-term change. Too many environmental groups are good at identifying the policy outcomes they wish to promote, but are unable to articulate how they will build the power they need to realize those outcomes.

Practice participatory engagement

Alinksy also writes that there are two forms of power: organized money and organized people. Since most progressive activists do not have ready access to massive amounts of concentrated money, our power-building strategies generally must focus around organizing people. (And as the Howard Dean and MoveOn campaigns have shown, you can raise serious money from organized people.)

The fundamental way to build people-centered power is to create ways for people to engage in the process of making social change. We’re talking about leadership development — helping people rediscover their power as citizens by using it. It’s a process, not a destination, and most environmental groups, even those with democratically elected boards of directors, are *terrible* at this. Too many of us still view our members as people who write $25/year checks and nothing more. And we make them write checks *before* we communicate with them.

New and emerging Internet organizing tools allow organizers to engage people (albeit somewhat shallowly) at big scale and low cost. These tools, which are mainly being pioneered by the big national campaigns that have dollars and staff to spare, are very promising, but are still in their infancy. The most successful ones will probably be those that can help faciliate “real-world” organizing, and/or move people up the ladder of engagement.

I suspect that there is still tremendous untapped potential in fusing Internet tools with the proven techniques of organizing local chapters that feed democratically into larger state, regional and national structures where power flows from the bottom up rather than the top down.

Let the issues choose you

Too often, we spend too much energy on issues that aren’t salient to enough people to build the kind of power we need to effect the social changes we seek. Jonathan Peizer [makes this point](http://www.movementasnetwork.org/001403.html) very eloquently:

>You can’t artificially contrive issues — they either capture people’s attention and imagination or they don’t. Each issue also has a ceiling for participation. There are only so many people interested in helping spawning salmon or the spotted owl. And there’s only a limited number of people beyond these issues core adherents that can be whipped into rabid passion on the subject.

Worse, we fail to understand that we can’t control the agenda. Natural and human disasters happen no matter what our strategic plans say, and we must be ready to respond. We need to do a better job of capitalizing on the issues that present themselves.

Create structures that allow nimbleness

Being “ready” requires resources — planning, networks, policy solutions, PR strategies, etc. Campaigns “on the shelf” and ready to go when the moment is right. Government and corporate interests invest tons of money in this, environmentalists nearly none. Marty Kearns has [written a bit about this](http://www.network-centricadvocacy.net/2004/01/network_advocac.html).

Train and retain organizers

Great organizing doesn’t “just happen.” It requires trained, talented human beings who have a great mix of listening and leadership skills. The environmental movement is heavy on campaigners who advocate passionately (and skillfully) for policy objectives, but it is short on organizers who can go into a room of ordinary people, listen to their concerns and help them find a path towards effective action. We desperately need to invest more resources in this kind of nuts-and-bolts training — and we need to take far better care of the folks in our movement who do this kind of work. WORC’s [Principles of Community Organizing](http://www.worc.org/development/pocotraining.html) training workshop is a rare example of grassroots organizing training within the environmental community. Groups like [Hollyhock Leadership Institute](http://www.hollyhockschool.org) are doing some great stuff on personal sustainability for activists, but much more needs to be done on create organizational structures that keep people happy and healthy.

Reframe environmental messages

Specific environmental issues are rarely “top of mind” issues. We need to make sure that we’re framing our issues in langauge that sets the terms of debate in our favor. (Think about how the right has used “tax relief” to frame taxation issues.) George Lakoff has written extensively about this. Some recommended starting points:

* [“Simple Framing”](http://www.rockridgeinstitute.org/perspectives/simple_framing)
* [“Inside the Frame: An Interview with George Lakoff](http://www.alternet.org/story/17574)
* [NPR Interview with George Lakoff](http://www.npr.org/rundowns/segment.php?wfId=1667389)

If you dig this kind of stuff, there’s more on this at http://www.movementasnetwork.org.