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Mass Work

Fighting Class War While ‘Walking on Two Legs’

by Cynthia Peters, LeftRoots Cadre Member

Much of the organizing in the U.S. is guilty of focusing on short-term outcomes, not thinking about how the work is developing the people who are doing it.

There’s an apartment building in Dorchester that used to be a safe and affordable place to live for working-class families in Boston. But after a corporate landlord bought it in 2013, it has become a case study in how displacement happens. First, he allowed it to fall into extreme disrepair. As the building deteriorated, leaks developed, mold started growing, and people started moving out. After they left, the landlord cleaned up their units and rented them at significantly higher rates.

When City Life/Vida Urbana volunteers (of which I am one) started organizing in the building, people were scared and alienated from each other. As we started holding meetings, tenants began to connect with each other and learn their rights. After they pressured the landlord to make some minimal changes (which barely got the building up to code), the landlord raised their rent. For five months, the tenants have remained united in their refusal to pay the rent increase. They are paying the old rent and pressuring the landlord to meet with them as a tenants’ association and negotiate a fair rent increase.

The point of our organizing, however, is never solely to prevent displacement or improve conditions or negotiate fair rent increases. Although those wins are important and obviously do real good in real people’s lives, they are just one of the “legs” we should be walking on as we organize. What is the second “leg”? It is how all those involved in the organizing evolve and change over time through their engagement in the struggle.

This concept of “walking on two legs” was a key point made by Michael Lebowitz and Marta Harnecker, who traveled through several U.S. cities recently as part of a LeftRoots-organized tour, and spoke with organizers about the concept of not just fighting for change but also “producing ourselves differently” in the process of that fight. “In revolutionary practice,” according to Lebowitz, there is “simultaneous changing of circumstances and self-change. We change ourselves through our activity. We have to struggle not just to save the world but to save ourselves.”

Fighting to stop displacement, fighting to make housing a human right, fighting for an economic system that puts “people before profit” – that fight is one of the legs we walk on through the housing justice work we do at City Life. But how are we doing with the second leg – the fight to save ourselves, to be connected, to be fully human, to see ourselves as interdependent and capable of joining with others to creatively solve our problems?

At the building in Dorchester where long-time Boston residents are fighting for the right to remain in their communities, here are some of the ways we have strengthened the second leg:

1. We notice our importance.

The kind of systemic change that we are striving for will not be underwritten by funders and organized by paid staff working out of non-profits. Massive, grassroots-based organizing that drives the kind of change we want to see must ultimately involve thousands and thousands of volunteers touching the lives of millions of people and bringing them into the movement. At our building in Dorchester, we’ve gotten a glimpse of what this could look like. Our team – almost all of whom have been directly affected by displacement and have fought it – acts like a structural reminder that we are all needed for the struggle. L and R have formed tenant associations in their own buildings and can speak first-hand about the process, the intimidation tactics the landlord uses, and the benefits of sticking together. P and J fought home foreclosure and can share with others the power of solidarity in fighting the worst excesses of the for-profit housing system. C and J have the capacity to make phone calls, develop flyers, and do the clerical tasks that help keep the wheels turning. These collective offerings, with support from the paid staff, have kept the organizing going for almost a year. We have backed each other, role-played with each other, stepped in for each other, debated each other, gone to the funerals of each other’s loved ones, and celebrated successes together. Oppression isolates us. Working together as a team does the opposite.

2. We develop.

When we started organizing in this building as City Life volunteers, we came in with a perspective that the tenants should unite to fight the corporate landlord, and that indeed has happened. However, there were other struggles in the building, including tensions around drug-use and prostitution, and we didn’t have a ready response for these tensions. Inspectional Services suggested calling the police, but tenants rolled their eyes at this idea. They’ve had too much experience with police not coming, coming too late, or coming and being unhelpful (to put it mildly). What has happened organically is that residents have noticed the emerging leaders in the Tenants Association and have sought them out for advice and support in dealing with this community tension. What are they doing about it? For now, they are simply trying to get those affected by the situation together to talk it over – a modest but potentially effective way forward that sidesteps the criminalization of more people of color and that exercises that second leg! In the process of fighting displacement, these tenants have further developed and refined the capacity to look to each other to solve problems.

3. We experience solidarity.

Perhaps the key transformation that has happened over time in this organizing effort is the realization that we are not alone. The tenants in the building now have each other’s phone numbers, know each other’s names, and confide and build with each other. But more than that, they have had the experience of “complete strangers” (i.e., other City Life members) showing up at a Speak-Out in front of their building. And they, in turn, are joining with other grassroots organizations in the fight for a citywide ordinance for Just Cause Eviction, which provides important protections for renters throughout the city.

4. We build a political home.

With City Life, activists and tenants have an organizing home – a place where we can take lessons back to others doing similar work, where we can be held accountable for our work, where we can learn skills and contribute to strategic decisions about how to fight for housing justice in our city. In addition, through City Life, we have access to opportunities to study, to learn theories of change, to develop our worldview. But we need more than this. To further strengthen the second leg, we need a political home. We need to see ourselves as members of a larger movement, joining with others across various struggles to develop a strategy for how to be greater than the sum of our parts.

Much of our organizing in the U.S. is guilty of having an over-developed first leg, which we use to hop and lurch toward our goals. We are doing the work with more attention to immediate outcomes than to the way it is developing us in the process. “Walking on two legs,” we stride forward in a more balanced way – changing the world while we change ourselves so that we are better able to change the world.

This content was published by TeleSUR here and ZNet here.


Organizing Transformation: Best Practices in the Transformative Organizing Model

By Steve Williams.

Published by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, New York Office, May 2015.

Download the PDF here »

With corporate profits rising along with the number of children living in poverty, the state-sanctioned killings of Black civilians, the record-number of deportations of undocumented immigrants and the irrefutable evidence coming crisis caused by capitalism’s addiction to fossil fuels, the need for systematic change is more and more urgent everyday. But as the great Guinea-Bissauan revolutionary Amílcar Cabral once cautioned, “We are not going to eliminate imperialism by shouting insults against it.”[1] Toppling the old order requires building broad, radical and confident social movements that grow out of the social sectors whose interests lie in a future based on justice and solidarity.

To talk of movement building rightly leads one to the challenge of workplace and community organizing. In the United States (and some other parts of the Western world), this often leads to the books of Saul Alinsky. While celebrating collective action, the model described in Alinsky’s books discourages organizers and organizations to take up the ideological tasks necessary to analyze and undermine long-lasting systems of exploitation and oppression. In recent years, a model of organizing has been emerging in communities and workplaces across the United States with efforts to build power amongst domestic workers, residents facing eviction, queer young people and people fighting climate change. This model attempts to link democratic efforts to build the collective power while also challenging the deeply rooted systems of white supremacy, hetero-patriarchy, capitalism and imperialism. Many have referred to this emerging model as transformative organizing.

While the model of transformative organizing is new and still in development, it is also rooted in a rich historical tradition. Many of the organizers who use the term ‘transformative organizing’ acknowledge that their approach draws from the practices and the lessons drawn from past efforts in the United States and around the globe to build popular power to challenge and change the systems of oppression and exploitation that degrade the quality of life for people, communities and the planet. Drawing from the experiences of organizations like the Black Panthers, the Young Lords, the Wobblies, the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) and the women of color feminism of the 1970s, many of these efforts are trying to weave together the work of individual organizations with the goal of building a broad and united social movement capable of confronting and ending the systems of oppression and exploitation.

What is Transformative Organizing

There is also something innovative about the practices transformative organizing. When asked to define transformative organizing, Hashim Benford for Power U Center for Social Change in Miami offered this: “These systems of oppression that we interface with on a daily basis— white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy— they’re not just abstract concepts, and they don’t just shape unequal material conditions, but they also impact us as human beings… Transformative organizing seeks to transform people and society. It unpacks the interpersonal and individual effects of oppression and trauma in our lives as part of the process of doing societal, social, community-level change work. When I think of transformative that’s the ultimate vision.”[2] His definition brings together two strands that are central to all of the organizations’ approaches to the emerging model— commitment to changing social systems while supporting people’s individual and collective ability to learn and put into practice different ways of relating to the world, to their communities, to their families (however those are defined) and to themselves.

This study aims to explore the components of this transformative organizing model through a study of four different organizations’ work. An earlier article entitled “Demand Everything” offered an examination of the transformative organizing model which drew from the author’s experience of more than twenty years as a community organizer in San Francisco with the Coalition on Homelessness and POWER (People Organized to Win Employment Rights).[3] That article identified nine components of the transformative organizing model:

  1. Walk with Vision;
  2. Reach Out to Listen and Learn;
  3. Revolutionary Edge of Reform;
  4. Democracy is Power;
  5. Cultivate Leaders;
  6. Build Strategic Alliances;
  7. Commit to Movement;
  8. Extract Every Lesson; and
  9. Personal is Political.

Recognizing that the power of the transformative organizing model comes from its application of certain over-arching principles in a very specific context with a particular set of social forces, this article examines how distinct organizations are applying aspects of the transformative organizing model. It examines the work of four organizations whose work is breaking new ground and helping to shape the definition of the term. Those organizations include Causa Justa :: Just Cause in the San Francisco Bay Area; Power U Center for Social Change in Miami, FL; National People’s Action, a network of almost than thirty affiliated grassroots organizations; and the Vermont Workers Center, a statewide grassroots organization. Whether these organizations use the term ‘transformative organizing’ or not, their practice offers a compelling example of organizations attempting to embody a commitment to transforming systems and transforming ourselves.

Causa Justa :: Just Cause

Causa Justa :: Just Cause (CJJC) is a grassroots organization which organizes working class tenants to fight for housing rights in the real estate-dominated context of the San Francisco Bay Area. In a region where tenants rights laws protect long-term tenants from market-rate rent increases, landlords have taken to bullying and harassing their tenants in hopes that those tenants will move out thereby making room for tenants willing to pay higher rent. Today, the Oakland rent board receives as many as two-hundred calls per month from tenants complaining of landlord harassment.[4]

In the fall of 2014, CJJC led a coalition calling on the Oakland City Council to pass legislation to stop landlords from bullying and harassing their tenants in hopes that those tenants will move out thereby making room for tenants willing to pay higher rent. As one woman testified to Council members, “[My landlord] has failed to provide basic services. He did not pay (the gas and electricity bill) so we were without heat and hot water for a week in the winter.”[5] In October, CJJC won some relief for the City’s tenants when the Oakland City Council passed the Tenant Protection Ordinance, making it easier for renters to stand up against landlord harassment. The story of CJJC and its path to building a united base of African American and Latino tenants is a study of transformative organizing.

All transformative organizing begins with a collective intention— the intention to struggle against a cultural, economic and political hegemony that perpetrates and reproduces capitalism, white supremacy and hetero-patriarchy. There is no singular path to this intention. Different organizations take different routes to arrive at such an intention. The clarity of the intention, as well as the integrity of the organization, can guide the organization’s practice and compel the group to experiment with approaches that might otherwise seem uncommon and superfluous.

In the case of CJJC, their practice has been driven by an intention to forge working class unity. However, building working class unity is no small under-taking in twenty-first century United States where the Marxist concept of class has been so bastardized to be seen as synonymous with level of income. In this neoliberal empire where class consciousness amongst working people is extremely low, the leadership of CJJC knew that it would need to find a round-about route to the concept of class. They looked to the incisive vision of Stuart Hall who famously wrote that “Race is, in short, the modality in which class is lived, the medium through which class relations are experienced, the form in which it is appropriated and fought through.”[6] The insights of this maxim unlocked the potential of CJJC’s organizational intention.

CJJC’s looked upon racial identities as the critical entry point towards building class consciousness and working class unity, and this led to CJJC’s decision to take up an intentional focus on building Black-and-Brown unity. CJJC is the product of a 2010 merger between a Black organization based in Oakland, Just Cause Oakland, and a Latino immigrant organization based in San Francisco called St. Peter’s Housing Committee.[7] The decision to merge was significant. Both organizations recognized that such a consolidation would require substantial shifts in each organization’s culture, practice and structures. Nevertheless, the leadership of each organization decided to move forward with the merger based on a shared analysis of the larger conditions in which they operated. Today, the organization has twenty-six staff and more than 3,000 members in San Francisco, Oakland and the surrounding region.

At the national level, Black and Latino families have been hit hard by the economic crisis. In 2011, the Pew Research Center reported that median wealth in white households is 20 times that of black households, and 18 times that of Latino households. Their report continued to note that from 2005 to 2009, wealth fell by 66% among Latino households, and by 53% among black households, compared to 16% among white households.[8] The similarity of conditions holds true in the Bay Area for low-income and working class African American and Latino households. Although the communities face similar issues of unsafe, inadequate and excessively expensive housing, alliances are rare between these communities. As the organization’s leadership observed:

Living in the same neighborhood, having the same landlord, or going to the same polls does not itself create solidarity. Even when people have the same material interests, there is no guarantee that they will identify those interests, or see themselves as tied to others with the same interests. And, while Black and Latino communities have the same interests in the long term, in the short term our interests do sometimes come into conflict. In fact, we often come into contact with each other most significantly only once when we have been pitted against each other, in a competition for employment opportunities, affordable housing, or basic services.[9]

Talking about difference did not heighten conflict; rather it forged basis of solidarity.

The starting-point for CJJC’s work, as it should be for any grassroots organization, is building strong and organic connections to the constituency. As María Poblet, one of the organization’s co-founders and its current Executive Director once said, “The grassroots foundation of our work is something that we must constantly be building. There are millions of people who should be involved in the project of black and brown unity. We must constantly be bringing working-class people into community organizing fights for reforms that affect their lives and give them the opportunity to develop themselves as fighters and as thinkers. Building and sustaining community-based organizations is the core of this work.”[10] In addition to traditional door-to-door organizing, CJJC staff provide counseling and advocacy services every month to hundreds of low-income tenants in San Francisco and Oakland. CJJC also anchors coalitional efforts to build national and international movement infrastructure and to mobilize working class people in the Bay Area to vote in local and national elections. CJJC is in position to build, listen and work in and with the community.

CJJC has instituted a number of practices that have facilitated their intention of building class unity through Black-and-Brown unity. The first has been creating multiple spaces for organizers and member-leaders to integrate the principle of Black-and-Brown unity into the organization’s ongoing work. One example of this is that every three months, CJJC runs an internal think tank which is a one- or two-day long meeting in which staff and member leaders explore the relationship between different aspects of the group’s work to Black-and-Brown unity. One past think tank connected the group’s participation in a national anti-gentrification network in a session entitled Black-and-Brown unity in the Right to the City. A different space, the Assata Shakur University, a three-month series of weekly two-hour sessions, allows members to engage with the organization’s goals, work and structure. In addition, the organization publishes a quarterly newsletter. Each newsletter features at least one article written by a rotating pair of staff and members. All of these spaces serve to further strengthen the leadership of staff and member leaders as well as allow the leadership to refine the organization’s understanding and application of the concept of Black-and-Brown unity.

By creating a broad base of staff and members who are familiar with and actively engaging with the implications of the organization’s focus on Black-and-Brown unity, CCJC is better able to carry out the second best practice— introducing the organizational intention in multiple ways. All new members, upon joining CJJC, are required to participate in a new member orientation session. Along with introducing new members to the group’s history, current work and structures, this session Introduces all members to the concept of Black-and-Brown unity. This is especially important since most members are recruited from spaces that are not multi-racial. The new member orientation helps to facilitate new members’ entry into a space of racial and language diversity that is unfamiliar to most working class people of color in the Bay Area. CJJC provides simultaneous interpretation at all of its meetings. At these meetings, members hear unfamiliar names and historical references. The orientation ensures the focus of Black-and-Brown unity is nothing that will come as a surprise to new members. In addition to the new member orientation, CJJC uses its quarterly newsletter and website to shine a consistent light on this aspect of the organization’s work.

A fourth aspect of building Black-and-Brown unity within CJJC has been waging organizing campaigns that address the unique issues impacting the African American and Latino communities. As stated earlier, CJJC’s approach to building working class unity has been stressed the importance of acknowledging and confronting the differences in the communities, rather than turning a blind-eye towards those differences to focus only on the similarities. In this vein, CJJC has been an active participant in the national campaign fighting for the rights of immigrants in the United States. CJJC’s organizational objective in this work was to create a space for its Latino members to strengthen the unity in the Latino community. As María Poblet said, “The goal was not to get Black members to support a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants… The goal was to create a space where Latino members could organize in their own interests. Our work is premised on the idea that you also need to understand your own experience, and that will make it possible to make alliances.”[11] It has been a positive by-product that many of CJJC’s African American members have become strong and active supporters of just immigration reform, and that unity has been built on the basis of the demands that the Latino members themselves identified. Along with the staff and members of POWER (People Organized to Win Employment Rights), CJJC is currently developing a similar organizing project to create a space for African American members to identify for themselves the demands that will advance their community’s interests. CJJC’s practice operates from the understanding that unity which ignores difference is fragile. Only by acknowledging differences can unity take the qualitative leap to becoming solidarity. Creating these organizing efforts that focus on the interests identified by each community makes multi-racial unity more concrete. As one of CJJC’s organizational reflections asserts, “Unity can’t be built in the abstract.”[12]

Finally, CJJC has invested in connecting organizational work to the objective of building a transformative movement that is rooted in grassroots, working class struggles. CJJC has been one of the anchor organizations within a number of national networks of grassroots organizations including Grassroots Global Justice and the Right to the City. Participation in these spaces pulls scarce resources away from the immediate work of local and regional campaigns, but the organization’s leadership has seen the way that allowing staff and member leaders to engage in spaces that transcend the local and organizational contexts in which CJJC operates. As María Poblet wrote about her experience at the 2013 World Social Forum (WSF) in Tunisia, “My experience at the WSF gave me a deeper understanding of the challenges looming for the progressive movement, and for feminists in particular, in Tunisia and in the whole region… Our movements need to reach towards international scale and impact, so these connections and solidarity can take organizational form. The world’s 1% have their World Trade Organization, their World Bank, their agreements and coordinated plans. We, the global 99%, need that scale of functioning too. It’s the only way we can win the internationalist feminist change we need.”[13] This commitment to exposing staff and members leaders to movement spaces— such as national networks, international gatherings and political training opportunities— has contributed to the organization’s willingness to experiment with unique and non-traditional tactics and has helped it become a strong and vibrant force in the social justice movement in the Bay Area and beyond.

All of these structures and practices are informed by the organization’s approach to building black-and-brown unity which is shaped by three key conditions which CJJC believes either need to be in place or which need to be cultivated. These three conditions are Black unity; Latino unity; and an Internationalist vision.

The success of CJJC’s efforts to build multi-racial working class unity were evident at the culmination of the campaign to pass the Tenant Protection Ordinance. As Oakland’s City Council voted to pass the new legislation, dozens of CJJC members stood proudly by, African Americans and Latinos who had built a new bridge of solidarity together.

Poblet acknowledges the difficulty of building Black-and-Brown unity. “Uniting these two sectors of society could re-invigorate the Left because uniting these two communities brings you to a conversation about class in a way that has truly transformative potential… We can see the transformative potential when Black and Latino people start to see themselves on the same team. It changes everything for the movement. That’s not where we’re at right now in the United States, or even in the Bay Area; but when we do it, so much more becomes possible.”[14] There is no road-map, but building multi-racial unity amongst the working class is an essential task for activists hoping to revitalize the movement in the United States.

Power U Center for Social Change

The Power U Center for Social Change was founded in 1998 to build an organizing base around issues in low-income communities in Miami, Florida. Much of the organization’s work has centered around a comprehensive approach towards education justice issues, and they have developed a strong base of members and leaders in that time. In 2001, these members and leaders forced local officials to invest more than $1 million to improve inner city schools. The organization has also conducted campaigns on housing and development issues as well as a call for birth justice to combat the growing disparity in infant morality rates between Black and White communities. This intersectional analysis has driven Power U’s recent campaign to end the School to Jailhouse Pipeline.[15]

All of the organizations highlighted in this study are structured as non-profits organizations which allows them to subsidize their operations with state-sanctioned, tax-deductible donations. All of the organizational representatives interviewed made mention of the challenges that come from trying to conduct transformative organizing work while relying on donations from institutions that distribute funds from various sections of the bourgeoisie.[16] One specific aspect of these challenges is the geographic disparity in funding. In particular, the few charitable foundations in the United States that fund organizing efforts rarely fund organizations in the Southern part of the country despite the inspiring work taking place throughout this region by organizations like Southern Echo, Cooperation Jackson, Project South, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Black Workers for Justice and the Mississippi Workers’ Center for Human Rights among many, many others. As a result, most organizations in the South, especially those that attempt to employ the transformative organizing model, struggle with a chronic lack of financial resources. This has pushed many organizations to make important adaptations. Power U’s example highlights an important aspect of transformative organizing.

Recognizing that they would never have the financial resources to employ a vast team of paid organizers, Power U has placed a strong emphasis on developing the leadership capacity of rank-and-file community members. In particular, Power U has placed a central focus on developing the leadership of young people in their community because, “We’re reproducing leaders for the movement,” observed Power U Executive Director Hashim Benford. “We’re not just developing leaders for Power U. Our goal is to produce leaders that are going to be social justice movement leaders for the rest of their lives.”[17] He then went on to cite the example of a young person who joined the organization while in middle school. This person joined Power U’s staff after completing her studies at an Ivy League university and recently joined the Board of Directors of a Southern social justice network. The potential power of developing young people as leaders was a point echoed by CJJC’s Executive Director María Poblet who herself joined the movement as a young person. “Transformative organizing allows us to contend with the reality that human beings are always in the process of development. Youth organizing is especially strong in recognizing this. Somebody who is 16-years old; you don’t know who they’ll be when they’re twenty-five. What you do know is that this experience (of joining an organizing campaign) is something that could shape who they become. That’s also true when you’re forty or sixty-five years old too. Certainly if you’re facing a crisis like a deportation or an incarceration of a family member or loosing your home, those are crisis moments when people transform themselves. in the context of collective action, they can transform others.”[18]

Too often, movement institutions regard leadership as an inevitable outcome of organizing; or it’s seen as something that is not worth the investment. In either case, the result is that the people from affected communities are not given the opportunity to take agency and shape the direction of a group’s efforts. As Power U member leader Keno Walker observed, “Organizing is not simple. You have to know the terrain. You have to know who’s the target. You have to know your people…” Power U has organized it work around the intention to help members and staff develop these capacities, and this intention shapes the organization’s transformative approach.

First, leadership development begins at Power U by seeing recruitment and retention of members as the irreplaceable first step towards cultivating new leaders. As Walker noted, “People are in the process of becoming leaders as soon as they join.”[19] If someone does not get involved in Power U, all of the organization’s leadership development work would be in vain. Like many other base-building organizations, Power U puts a premium on first getting potential members through the organization’s door. Staff organizers conduct door-to-door outreach and organizing at key locations in the community. They also do outreach at schools and host open mic cultural events, but Benford observed that most of Power U’s members first got involved because they were recruited by someone they knew. “The most effective outreach comes from people tapping into their own social networks… You’re leveraging existing bases of trust. Many organizations have under-estimated this approach to recruitment.”[20] Recruitment can take many forms, but it is always the first step to developing leadership.

Power U has committed to systematizing the on-going development of leadership capacities amongst its members. The process cannot end once someone joins an organization. Deciding to get involved is just the first step. There must be “a deliberate and intentional process. It doesn’t just happen by being part of an organization or being part of a movement. You can be part of an organization for many, many years without developing your leadership,” said Benford.[21] Addressing this, Power U developed a framework which they refer to as the Leadership Circles to facilitate members’ development from general members to core members to organizational members and to movement leaders. Each of these circles has a defined set of responsibilities and characteristics of what leadership looks like at each stage. Developing such a framework has helped Power U to make transparent the organization’s emphasis on developing the leadership capacity of members and staff. In these descriptions, Power U is intentional about avoiding a one-dimensional perspective of leadership. While very aware of the pitfalls of only acknowledging the leadership of charismatic orators, Power U operates from the perspective that “different kinds of leadership is a good thing and makes for a strong organization and a strong movement.”[22]

Inside the organization, Power U takes an effective approach towards developing leadership development plans by engaging members in discussions with the organizing staff to identify the areas that they would like to develop their leadership capacities. Organizers meet with leaders to develop individualized leadership development plans and objectives. As a result, members are more invested in the work necessary to develop in these areas, and the organization, then commits to supporting that member in her process. This approach is rooted in the perspective that leadership is a collective project, not solitary quest. “Developing leadership often means people working with you to identify where you want to develop, what are the benchmarks for that development and what needs to happen in order for you to get to where you’re trying to go.”[23] POWER U’s collective approach towards developing leadership involves tactics like ongoing political training sessions as well as workshops that address current issues. For example, Power U quickly organized a workshop on gender justice after President Barack Obama announced the My Brother’s Keeper imitative. Exploring the need to address patriarchy, Power U’s series, entitled My Sister’s Keeper Too, created a space within the organization to promote the leadership of young women in the organization. These sessions are often interactive and grow from the members lived experiences. But workshops are not the end.

These political training sessions represent a core aspect of the organization’s approach to developing leadership capacities, but as member leader Keno Walker pointed out, workshops are not the only part of the approach. They are only one part of a larger effort. Another piece is devoting time and energy to draw out the lessons from the experience of joining together with others to take collective action. All organizing efforts look to mobilize people to take collective action, but without taking the time to analyze the context and events of those actions, organizations loose a valuable opportunity to draw out meaningful lessons that can deepen a member’s commitment and leadership. Reflecting on his own experience with Power U, Walker remembered that he got involved with Power U in 2008 as the organization was preparing to testify before the Miami School Board calling for an overhaul of the district’s disciplinary policies and practices. Walker said he wasn’t especially political and he didn’t know a lot about Power U, but his best friend recruited him so Walker started coming to the planning meetings. He said, “I didn’t think that what we were calling for was such a big deal. I didn’t think it would be controversial. What shocked me was how disrespectful (the members of the School Board) were to us. They were on their phones. They were eating and sleeping. When the group de-briefed the hearing, I saw even more clearly how this is how the system treats us. It wasn’t just the School Board. It was the whole system, and I saw that we had a group so I decided that I was going to stick with it.”[24] After that action, Walker met with Power U organizers who helped him draw the lessons from that experience which, in turn, deepened his commitment to the organization.

From a certain perspective, Power U’s focus on developing leadership seems innocuous and almost obvious, but in recent years, the very question of leadership has become controversial in movement discussions. Some movement activists have gone so far as to explain the effectiveness of recent popular mobilizations around the world as being a result of their being ‘leaderless.’ Power U takes issue with such claims. To say that there is a “Leaderless movement is inauthentic because there are always leadership dynamics. It is possible to have movements that are more horizontal where leadership is shared, but leadership happens. If it’s not named, then it can’t be held accountable. At Power U, we don’t have a single leader. We want to develop everyone’s leadership.”[25] POWER U provides an important example of the transformative potential of leaderful movements.

Nevertheless, Power U’s leadership acknowledges the trade-offs. While their approach has demonstrated the ability to develop a new rank of movement leaders, especially amongst women, young people and people of color, this labor-intensive approach means that it is unlikely that Power U will ever be an organization of hundreds of thousands, much less millions, of members. “Power U has gone through a series of organizational visioning processes, and we have doubled down on the mission of developing leadership as a central component of who we are. This means that with our limited resources and capacity, the time and energy that we’re spending with individuals means that we’re not out there trying to reach thousands of people at any given time. The strategic question for us becomes, then: How is our work of leadership development and developing a community cadre connected to the institutions that have a broader reach?”[26] As the Power U’s leadership noted, this decision assumes the existence of other organizations playing different, albeit coordinated, roles. Developing leadership, especially amongst constituencies that have been under-valued and under-represented as leaders, is an investment to building the type of broader movement that we want and need.

National People’s Action

All of the organizations profiled so far have focused their work at a local level. There are strengths that this form of organization is able to leverage. The organizations are able to focus their resources and attention to a very specific community or workplace over a prolonged period of time which can foster a higher level of trust with the constituency. Locally-based organizing also facilitates grassroots members’ having more direct engagement with the organization’s decision-making apparatus. But transformative organizing is not the exclusive domain of local-based organizations. Regional and national organizations and networks are experimenting with the transformative organizing model too. The scope of these organizations’ work provides their own advantages including allowing organizations to engage and confront political and economic actors who shape national and regional policy but who often do not operate within a local organization’s jurisdiction.

National People’s Action (NPA) offers an interesting perspective on the emerging model of transformative organization because they are a national network of grassroots organizations in 14 different states across the United States. Today, NPA has over 200 organizers working to build the collective power of working class people in cities, towns and rural communities across the country, from family farmers in rural Iowa to young people in New York’s South Bronx. Organizations affiliated with NPA do community organizing, hold house meetings and engage in direct actions. Nationally, NPA coordinates three local, state and national campaigns to advance economic and racial justice: Bank Accountability, Housing Justice and Immigrant and Worker’s Rights.[27]

They are also interesting because they were not founded in the transformative organizing tradition. NPA was founded in 1972 by organizers in Chicago as a network of grassroots organizations across the country fighting to fighting to reclaim democracy and advance racial and economic justice. During its early years, much of NPA’s work was aimed towards holding banks and corporations accountable to the communities they claimed to serve. Their organizing efforts helped pass the Federal Home Mortgage Disclosure Act in 1975 which exposed banks’ red-lining and denying loans to people based on their race and where they lived, regardless of their credit worthiness as well as to the passage of the Community Reinvestment Act in 1977.

As NPA Executive Director George Goehl said, “Most of us have spent most of our political lives in oppositional struggle. It was never with the vision to be in power or to have power but to have enough power to contest with somebody bigger than us. That’s how so many of us were developed and all that we had ever experienced. Operating from what’s the best thing possible in the current ideological and political landscape was where most of us sat versus being powerful and thoughtful actors shifting the landscape to our benefit.”[28] All of this changed with the financial crisis of 2007-08. Although NPA was not born out of the transformative organizing model, their practice has drawn heavily from the this emerging model, especially in the last seven years, and has made important contributions that deepen and expand the transformative organizing model.

When the financial titans of the world crashed the economy causing the Great Recession of 2007-08, NPA, like many other organizations across the United States, found itself struggling with existential questions about how best to move forward— questions like: “What are the kinds of structural reforms NPA wants to be part of bringing about? What campaigns should we be building in the next five years that take advantage of current opportunities but also allow us to move in the direction of realizing a long-term agenda? What kinds of alliances do we need and with whom?”[29] Despite having staged several actions which directly challenged the CEOs of some of the nation’s largest predatory financial institutions, NPA’s leadership recognized that the organization was ill-prepared to confront the scale of the challenges facing working class people throughout the country. Simply doing more of the same would not be sufficient. Inspired by the scale and audacity of what had happened with the Occupy encampments, NPA made a bold decision to go back to the drawing board. The process that the organization undertook has many lessons for transformative organizing efforts.

Conducting ongoing and sober assessments of the shifting terrain is the first of the best practices demonstrated in the strategic inquiry process which NPA undertook after the crash. Ultimately, NPA staff, members and affiliates went through an extensive process to assess the strategy of corporate forces, to envision the political and economic system that would produce justice and to identify the fights that would enable the organization to move towards its vision. Each affiliate organization which participated in the process was required to involve at least twenty-five staff and member leaders in a year-long process of study, discussion and visioning. This was a significant re-allocation of resources at a time when it must have been tempting to continue relying on tried and true attempts to turn up street heat. The participants in this reflective process included family farmers, trailer park residents, clergy, unemployed workers, public housing residents from across the country. Allocating the resources necessary to conduct such a process, especially as it represented a departure from the organization’s previous practice, was only possible because there was a shared assessment that the severity of the crisis demanded that NPA adopt new practices.

Given the novelty of the strategic inquiry process, NPA recognized that it the process would be strengthened by drawing on the support of allies outside the organization. Early on, NPA sought the assistance of the Grassroots Policy Project (GPP), an initiative which provides consulting and training assistance to social movement organizations. NPA’s training staff, most notably Bree Carlson, led the process with ongoing support from GPP staff who brought a wide range of skills and experiences to the process that grew from their own diverse experiences in different social movements, electoral initiatives and Left party-building efforts. This process ultimately produced an eight-page agenda, “National People’s Action: Long-Term Agenda to the New Economy” which calls for transforming economic and political systems.[30] This agenda is more comprehensive and far-reaching and that was possible because of the allies’ support throughout the process. Points in the agenda include: democratic control of capital, racial justice, corporations serve the common good; real democracy; and ecological sustainability.

All national organization must find an appropriate balance between the need for unified direction and local autonomy. This is especially true for national network of grassroots organizations like NPA. The group is choosing to navigate this contradiction by providing space for local experimentation while ensuring organizational coherence and strategic direction for those experiments through the collective ownership of the long-term agenda that emerged from this process. This allows the affiliates to exert tactical independence based on the local conditions while allowing those local actions to add up to more than the sum of their parts. Clearly, this approach is only feasible because the process was engaged members at all levels of the network and encouraged the participants to take genuine ownership over its development. As NPA Executive Director George Goehl recounted, “This was the most democratic process that NPA has ever gone through. This was not a matter of the staff merely bringing proposals to the members for ratification. Members grappled with big questions. I was getting calls from members asking: ‘What do we mean by democratic control of capital?’ or ‘What will be the role of the state?’ That’s when I knew this was something different.”[31] With the content having been debated and the agenda drafted, the document has become a consistent reference point for the affiliates. Most use the agenda to begin their process of developing campaign plans and demands. In addition, the agenda’s content was translated into various multimedia presentations.[32] It has helped to foster a situation in which the affiliates see one another as partners in a common struggle.

The final practice that NPA’s process of strategic inquiry offers is perhaps the most important for any organization attempting to do transformative work from within the constraints of the non-profit industrial complex. It is a practice exemplified by all of the organizations included this case study, and this is being wiling to undertake work deemed to be important— even if it’s not funded. As Goehl said, “No foundation gave us money to do this work. We just did it because we were committed to how important it was.”[33] One of the central dangers of operating a project whose aim it is to build the power of working and popular classes to challenge the systems of capitalism, white supremacy and hetero-patriarchy is that few institutions within the capitalist economy are eager to fund such projects. If the leadership of a transformative organizing project is unwilling to venture outside of what is fund-able, the revolutionary potential of that project will inevitably wither and poison the ground for future efforts. As all of the representatives noted, transformative organizing must in the long run develop new sources of funding that are not tied to the logic of capitalist hegemony if it hopes to expand, but in the short-run this model insists that organizations be willing to carry out strategically important work even if there is no funding. There are now foundations that are interested in funding the campaigns that emerge from this process, but none seem interested in the process that gave birth to these campaigns. According to Goehl, “In the end, NPA’s strategic inquiry process has provided the clarity that the organization was looking for when the financial crisis first broke. It has transformed the organization. It’s one of the main reasons that people are in NPA and one of the main reasons that groups affiliate with NPA. It’s not for any particular transaction. It’s for being a part of that— being part of a group that wants to do that and think like that! It’s a loving place to be but it’s not a comfortable place to be because we’re all challenging each other to think differently and bigger. We’re acting like we want the movement to become.”[34]

Vermont Workers’ Center

The Vermont Workers’ Center (VWC) was founded in 1998 as a workers’ rights organization. In its first years, the organization’s work centered on maintaining a workers’ rights hotline which received phone calls from thousands of workers throughout the state whose rights had been violated. The sheer number of the calls convinced the organization’s leadership that “the only real way for working people to improve workplace conditions was to get together to form unions to bargain a contract with their employer or demand elected officials change the laws.”[35] As a result, the organization began partnering with different trade union locals and community organizations to support different worker struggles. In 1999, the VWC joined the Vermonters for a Living Wage Campaign which successfully raised the state’s minimum wage. Coming out of these campaigns and a separate effort to build a downtown workers union in Montpelier with the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America (UE), the VWC staff and leadership increasingly realized that the problems workers face are not limited to the workplace. One issue that came up frequently and forcibly from members was the failure of the employer-based healthcare system and its organization as a market-based commodity. VWC’s leadership saw that the healthcare crisis was the primary issue driving workers in factories and staff in schools to decide to go on strike.

Recognizing their still limited capacity (at the time, the VWC had only one staff person and a small membership centered around Burlington), the VWC decided to partner with other organizations and unions and to enter into a series of statewide coalitions fighting for a universal healthcare system. In deciding to enter into these coalitions, the VWC members identified three principles that they wanted to see reflected in the coalitions’ demands: 1. Healthcare must be framed as a human right; 2. The provision of healthcare must be de-coupled from whether or not a person has employment; and 3. The healthcare system must be publicly funded. These principles continue to frame the VWC’s engagement on healthcare issues. The other coalition partners at least tentatively agreed to these three points although some of the larger partner organizations attempted to water down some of these demands. With this agreement in hand, the VWC staff and members participated in various healthcare coalitions from 2003 to 2006.[36]

The decision to focus on the healthcare crisis was pivotal for the VWC. They came to see that this was an issue that a wide range of people across the state cared about, and it was an issue around which people were prepared to take action with others. Quickly, the organization’s work was gaining momentum, and they were able to expand the number of organizers on staff from one to twelve in just a few of years. This campaign had a lot of potential, but it was also clear that waging the campaign through coalitions was not unleashing the full potential of this issue. Although several coalitional partners had larger membership bases and staffs, it was the VWC who was the prime mover of much of the coalition’s work. As the VWC Executive Director recalled, “That’s when we re-envisioned VWC as a grassroots base-building organization that includes everyone in every region of the state… VWC wanted to use the healthcare campaign to build a state-wide organization around where communities would be permanently on a year-round basis. It was hard to imagine any issue would do that better.”[37]

For the next five years, the members and staff of the VWC waged an important struggle to address the healthcare crisis in a way that acknowledges healthcare as a basic human right. They were eventually successful in pushing the state legislature to pass ground-breaking legislation in 2011 “which commits Vermont to creating a healthcare system providing healthcare as a public good and ensuring everyone can get the healthcare they need, when they need it.”[38] It is important to note that although this campaign was well underway by the time the federal government launched its reform of the national healthcare system, the VWC had to display incredible tactical flexibility and tenaciousness in order to avoid being trapped by the worst aspects of the federal framework which relies on a market-based solution. The approach and tactical decisions that the VWC made throughout the healthcare is a human right campaign provide important glimpses at some of the best practices emerging from the transformative organizing model.

The first best practice that the VWC’s Healthcare is a Human Right campaign demonstrates is the commitment to incorporating the insights and experiences of the constituency and membership when developing the organization’s campaign and demands. The founding purpose of the VWC was to address bosses’ mistreatment of workers in the workplace. Some might have disregarded as peripheral workers’ frequent complaints about the dysfunctional healthcare system, and others might have rationalized that once the workers organized and won contracts that provided higher wages that those workers would be able to navigate the healthcare bureaucracy on their own. Both of these responses would have undermined the organization’s potential to embolden people to take collective action, but it also required an important level of humility for the organization’s membership and leadership to be willing to shift its organizing focus. It was also important that the VWC was not listening only to its membership. They also took into account the voices and perspectives of the larger working class, including people who had not yet joined the VWC or the larger movement. Although the VWC did not give them decision-making authority within the organization’s structures, by accounting for the perspectives of their constituency, the organization positioned itself to wage a campaign on terms that synthesized what they’d heard into a campaign and demands that both reflected popular sentiments and pointed towards an alternative to the dominant system.

Opportunities to hear the perspectives of members and constituents rarely present themselves, so the VWC has been intention in creating spaces for members to participate in developing major initiatives. To strengthen member involvement in the next phase of the healthcare campaign, the organization launched an extensive, internal campaign from December 2012 to December 2013 to clarify expectations of VWC members. The process began with discussion at the annual statewide membership assembly at the end of 2012. A team of staff and member leaders then took the main points from that discussion and drafted a survey which was used by organizing committees throughout the state. This survey also served as the basis for more than 100 one-on-one meetings with members that took place in the spring and summer of 2013. The committee re-convened in late summer to collect the input from all of these meetings, and they developed a proposal to clarify the definition of membership and the membership dues. In September and October of 2013, this proposal was brought back out to the statewide organizing committees for feedback. In November, the committee revised its initial proposal, and that proposal became the proposal which the members ultimately adopted at the membership assembly in December 2013, a full year after this process had begun. At several points throughout this process, the organization held leadership retreats where organizational staff and leaders came together to study how organizations like the Landless Workers Movement in Brazil make large decisions. Haslam points out that the VWC does not use this model for every decision the organization makes, but for major initiatives, they find that extensive processes like these ultimately ensure that the organization makes better decisions in ways that strengthens the members’ connection to one another and to the organization; “other times we do the best that we can to make good and sound decisions.”[39]

A second best practice exemplified by the VWC’s healthcare campaign is using political education to insulate against the possible attacks of the opposition. As noted earlier, one of the principles guiding the organization’s campaign was that healthcare must be universal, that “everyone can get the healthcare they need, when they need it.”[40] The organization recognized that their opponents might attempt to attack this component of their proposal, in particular the calls to cover undocumented immigrants and women’s reproductive services. Taking into account the fact the VWC’s membership is predominantly White, the organization decided to conduct a series of workshops throughout the campaign about racism and racial justice for leaders as well as interested supporters. Allies from the Bay Area-based Catalyst Project came in to help with the seven workshops which eventually involved more than 170 VWC members. The workshops covered, among other themes, why the proposal’s call for universal coverage was so critical to the such of the program and to building a larger movement. This move proved to be prescient, because just as the proposed legislation was going before the State Senate for its final vote, the body passed an amendment 22 to 8 to exclude undocumented immigrants from coverage. Pundits told the VWC that there was nothing that could be done. The VWC responded by helping to organize two massive rallies on the steps of the state building that in the end forced the legislature to withdrawal the amendment. As Haslam reflected, this victory “would not have been possible if we had not done a lot of that work with the members from the get-go preparing people to take on that issue.”[41]

A third practice that is important to understand from the VWC’s campaign for healthcare is their speaking to the needs and interests of a broad section of the community without sacrificing their constituencies’ interests. Many transformative organizations have rooted themselves amongst constituencies that have historically been some of the most exploited, oppressed and marginalized social sectors. One danger that can stem from this decision is voicing the interests of only a small section of society and discounting the possibility to make alliances with other social actors who might be impacted by the same issues. Doing so, squanders the opportunity to show how the interests of the organization’s constituency are in fact the in line with the interests of society at large. Another error on the other end is watering down the demands which would provide relief to those social sectors that are most politically vulnerable in an effort to broaden the base of support. Doing so trades public relations spin for concrete campaigns that can embolden a movement— win or loose. The VWC was able to navigate this contradiction by organizing public forums around the state that allowed a wide array of people to share their healthcare stories and conducting deliberate political training to underscore the strategic importance of their principle of universality amongst key staff, leaders and supporters. Our movement’s ability to navigate this contradiction more effectively could spark the emergence of an unstoppable movement.

The VWC success in passing the healthcare is a human right legislation is important not only because it represents a popular movement’s victory during a period when those have been hard to come by. It is certainly important for this reason. This is undeniable, but it is also important because it provides features locally-based organizers intentionally seeking out openings for social movements to push the largely disappointing federal healthcare overhaul in a more left and progressive direction. This is the fourth best practice that grows from the VWC’s campaign. The organization was clear about this from the beginning, and it represents another best practice, that of seeking out political openings in the local context that might serve as precedents which open space for social movement organizers in other parts of the country. Before 2008, a number of elected officials in Vermont had stated publicly that they supported a single-payer healthcare system, but that such a program was impossible given the political climate in Washington, DC. The VWC launched their healthcare is a human right to take advantage of this somewhat favorable context and “to build a strong enough statewide grassroots people’s movement to change what is politically possible.”[42] Their success can be judged by the fact that social movement organizations in Maine, Maryland, Pennsylvania and other states are all now organizing their own healthcare Is a human right campaigns.


As these profiles reveal, there are a lot of commonalities between the approach and practice of these four organizations as well as differences. These differences grow from two important points. First, each of these transformative organizing efforts are taking place in different conditions with distinct constituencies, and the organizing is shaped by those conditions. As a result, transformative organizing in different contexts will inevitably and appropriately look different from one place to another.

Another important reason for the differences in approach and practice of the organizations profiled is because the transformative organizing model is still emerging as a model. All of these organizations are experimenting in their own rights. It is only recently that many of these organizations have begun to articulate and share with one another their own experiences in trying to forge new approaches to making transformative change. Organizers are developing the model as they try to resolve particular challenges in their work and contradictions in society. It is an unfolding process, but it is one that is increasingly becoming a process that organizers are taking up.

Sadly, there are few resources which comprehensively document the transformative organizing model. This is sorely needed in order to provide a space for organizers to reflect and refine their own practices and to provide guidance for up-and-coming organizers. This article does not offer such a comprehensive instruction of the transformative organizing model. Hopefully, it can be a small step towards bringing together such a resource.

All of the experiments profiled are ongoing, and one can see important commonalities emerging through the differences. As the article “Demand Everything” and this case study demonstrate, transformative organizations often incorporate a firm commitment to developing the capacity of members to take on genuine and authentic leadership in their organizations and the larger movement while struggling to make fundamental transformations in the social, economic and political systems that perpetuate exploitation, oppression and ecological degradation. This connection grows from an acknowledgement that in addition to creating conditions of war, poverty and climate catastrophe, the dominant systems stunt the full development of all people. The attention paid to leadership development is a part of what Amílcar Cabral referred to as the “struggle against our own weakness.”[43] It must be a central part of any attempt to realize dreams of liberation, justice and dignity. As Cuban philosophy professor Georgina Alfonso explained at the 2013 World Social Forum, “Personal development can’t occur without the opportunity for collective development… Our task, then, is to build relationships that break the logic reproducing discrimination and patriarchy within the struggle for a better world.”[44]

Possibly the most telling statement that a number of the interviewed organizers offered is that their organization’s approach to transformative organizing is a integrated model. It’s not a mix-and-match approach in which an organizer can take one piece and disregard the others. Organizations eager to develop the type of leaders from the profiled organizations must understand that those leaders do not simply emerge because of workshops. Leadership is cultivated in all aspects of these organizations work— in developing counter-hegemonic demands, in taking responsibility for crafting campaign plans and forging relationships with potential allies. Transformative organizing demands a comprehensive and integrated approach that aims to transform society’s structures as well as how communities relate to one another and how we see ourselves.

However, the transformative organizing approach is not without it’s own challenges. All of the organizers interviewed made a point of acknowledging the challenges of building organization and struggling for justice for people and the planet during an era of neoliberal austerity. As María Poblet observed, “It’s challenging work. Even when you have the people power to do it, it’s challenging work. There are breakthrough moments that make you think that all change is possible, and there are a lot of moments that are not that. There are countless instances of trying to convince someone to come the meeting, cajoling somebody to talk more in a meeting or to listen a little more…. The story of organizing often glosses over those early moments of trying to build trust, failing and trying again.”[45]

There are indeed many challenges to the transformative organizing model, just as there is promise. This case study continues what should be a more prolonged and extensive examination of the implementation of this old and emergent approach to building organizations designed to confront and change the world. During an era which is seeing people taking to the streets in resistance to war, austerity and the tyranny of the 1%, the transformative organizing model stands as an important contribution to the construction of popular movements able to confronting old systems and establishing the building blocks for a more liberatory, equitable and just future.



[1] Amílcar Cabral, “The Weapon of Theory” Address delivered to the first Tricontinental Conference of the Peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America held in Havana in January, 1966. p. 1.

[2] Hashim Benford. Interview with the author, November 20, 2014.

[3] Steve Williams, “Demand Everything: Lessons of the Transformative Organizing Model.” March 2013,

[4] “Oakland tenants say bully landlords taking advantage of market,” Will Kane. 2014 October 21. San Francisco Chronicle,

[5] “Oakland City Council Approves Tenant Protection Ordinance After Increasing Complaints About Landlord Harassment,” Chris Fillippi. 2014 October 22. KCBS,

[6] Stuart Hall, “Race Articulation and Societies Structured in Dominance,” Sociological Theories: Race and Colonialism, ed. UNESCO (Paris: UNESCO, 1980), p. 342.

[7] Causa Justa :: Just Cause is currently undergoing a merger with POWER (People Organized to Win Employment Rights), another San Francisco organization that has focused on building unity between working class African American and Latino tenants and workers. In 1997, the author was one of the co-founders of POWER.

[8] “Wealth Gaps Rise to Record Heights Between Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics,” Rakesh Kochhar, Richard Fry and Paul Taylor, Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends, PEW Research Center Publications, 2011.

[9]“Towards Black and Brown Unity: A Grassroots Perspective— Reflections on the experience of Causa Justa :: Just Cause.” Causa Justa :: Just Cause, page. 3.

[10] Ibid, page. 7.

[11] María Poblet. Interview with the author, November 4, 2014.

[12] “Towards Black and Brown Unity: A Grassroots Perspective— Reflections on the experience of Causa Justa :: Just Cause.” Causa Justa :: Just Cause, page. 1.

[13] María Poblet, “Reflections on the World Social Forum,”ía-poblets-blog/529-reflections-on-the-world-social-forum.

[14] María Poblet. Interview with the author, November 4, 2014.

[15] Power U Center for Social Change website,

[16] The Revolution Will Not be Funded by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence (South End Press, 2007) places many of these challenges within a broader historical context within the development of the capitalist political economy.

[17] Hashim Benford. Interview with the author, November 20, 2014.

[18] María Poblet. Interview with the author, November 4, 2014.

[19] Keno Walker. Interview with the author, November 20, 2014.

[20] Hashim Benford. Interview with the author, November 20, 2014.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Keno Walker. Interview with the author, November 20, 2014.

[25] Hashim Benford. Interview with the author, November 20, 2014.

[26] Ibid.

[27] National People’s Action website,

[28] National People’s Action website,

[29] National People’s Action, “Guiding Questions for NPA Strategic Inquiry,” 2012.

[30] The entire agenda, “National People’s Action: Long-Term Agenda to the New Economy,” can be found on the NPA website,

[31] George Goehl. Interview with the author, November 3, 2014.

[32] Among the various presentations of the agenda is a Prezi presentation,

[33] George Goehl. Interview with the author, November 3, 2014.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Vermont Workers’ Center website,

[36] James Haslam. Interview with the author, November 21, 2014.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Vermont Workers’ Center website,

[39] James Haslam. Interview with the author, November 21, 2014.

[40] Vermont Workers’ Center website,

[41] James Haslam. Interview with the author, November 21, 2014.

[42] Vermont Workers’ Center website,

[43] Amílcar Cabral, “The Weapon of Theory” Address delivered to the first Tricontinental Conference of the Peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America held in Havana in January, 1966. p. 1.

[44] María Poblet, “Until Every One of Us is Free,”

[45] María Poblet. Interview with the author, November 4, 2014.


As Ferguson ‘Weekend of Resistance’ Begins, Organizers Weigh How to Turn a Moment into a Movement

With thousands descending on Ferguson today to demand justice for Michael Brown, a creator of #BlackLivesMatter thinks now may be the time to win long-term victories.


Originally published in In These Times

Thousands of activists are expected to converge on Ferguson, Missouri starting Friday, October 10, for a “Weekend of Resistance” to support the ongoing protest movement that arose in the wake of the police killing of Michael Brown on August 9. Ferguson October, as the initiative is called, was organized by a coalition of recently formed and longstanding community organizations in the St. Louis area, including Hands Up United, The Organization for Black Struggle and Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE).

Beginning Friday with a march to the office of Bob McCulloch, the attorney charged with prosecuting the police officer who shot and killed Brown, the weekend will include numerous rallies, protests, political forums, and teach-ins, and will culminate with planned civil disobedience actions on October 13.

Alicia Garza is one of the organizers working on the ground in Ferguson with the wave of new activists who have taken to the streets in the wake of Brown’s killing. Based in Oakland, California, Garza is the Special Projects Director for the National Domestic Worker’s Alliance (NDWA). Garza is a co-creator of #BlackLivesMatter, a “political project” and online platform that aims to confront anti-black racism and reaffirm black humanity. Garza is also a member of LeftRoots, a “national formation of Left social movement organizers and activists” seeking to build socialism in the 21st century.

In the aftermath of Brown’s killing, Garza recalls feeling “not only completely horrified, but completely rageful.” She says, “Just like when any member of your family is hurt in any way, there’s a real urge to be there.” She responded to a “call coming from folks on the ground … for black folks in particular who were organizers and medics and attorneys and healers to come and support the community of Ferguson and the St. Louis community more broadly.”

With the backing of the NDWA, Garza traveled to Ferguson about three weeks after Brown’s death, and spent two weeks working “to help support capacity building on the ground.” During that time, the Black Lives Matter team organized a Freedom Ride that Garza says “mobilized more than 500 black people from all over the country to come to Ferguson, to not only stand in solidarity but to lend concrete and material support to organizers who work on the front lines of the Ferguson rebellion.”

Garza says her work in Ferguson was to “make sure the organizations and activists on the ground had the capacity to really hold this moment and extend it into a movement.”

After returning to the Bay Area, Garza received a call from the coalition organizing Ferguson October asking for support. On September 28, she returned to Ferguson, where she spoke with In These Times.

Read the full article on In These Times »


Why LeftRoots?

We need a radical and grounded Left

LeftRoots is a national formation of social movement organizers and activists who want to connect grassroots struggles to a strategy that can win liberation for all people and the planet. Mass organizations must be central features of strong and vibrant social movements, and Left cadre formations are as well. The U.S. Left, due in part to external assaults and in part from internal weaknesses, is at this point unable to cohere these mass struggles into an effective force for revolution. This must change if humanity has any hope of surviving, much less thriving. This is a central task of a rekindled Left, and Leftists engaged in mass organizations and social movements have a unique, yet unfulfilled, role to play in helping to reimagine and give life to a Left that is as radical as it is grounded in mass struggles. Details


Gramsci Comes Home

by Spencer Resnick & Jonathan Bix

Originally published in Jacobin Magazine, August 2013

Our long march through the institutions is not to reform them, but to transform the common sense they uphold.

With the 2008 financial crisis, the supposedly sturdy foundation of finance capital shook and nearly crumbled. Millions of working-class Americans saw their wealth, security, and jobs evaporate. Financial institutions got massive bailouts, while a tidal wave of foreclosures and evictions swept the country. The housing crisis in particular flipped the epitome of American stability and middle-class aspiration — the home — into a symbol of predatory financial exploitation. But while the failure of the system did not precipitate a revolt against those responsible, the resulting insecurity, injustice and anger around housing could form the basis for a broader struggle against a new financialized capitalist class.

This struggle can only come to fruition through organization, but the Left’s tactics have been wanting. We publish, we hold panels, we sell newspapers, we put on conferences, we create art. We desperately try to build a left discourse in a hostile environment. This instinct is a reasonable one in an era of neoliberal hegemony where all facets of life are reduced to the market. Meanwhile, our reliance on discourse has obscured the vital understanding that, in order to build a socialist movement, the contradictions of capitalism must be felt and experienced in the fabric of daily life.

As Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward explain, “Workers experience the factory, the speeding rhythm of the assembly line, the foreman, the spies and guards, the owner and the paycheck. They do not experience monopoly capitalism.” Homeowners experience the paperwork, the bank manager, the police and the lawyers, the phone calls, the fear of homelessness, and the eviction. They do not experience finance capital, therefore few of them embrace a critique of finance capital. We can only analyze and transform hegemonic ideology through what Antonio Gramsci calls a “war of position.”  But while we have identified that we are indeed in a war of position, the Left largely fails to grasp what it means to fight that war.

Gramsci understood that challenges to hegemonic ideology must go through common sense — lessons  learned, views adopted, and tools employed to make sense of our world — not around it. Constructing a new ideology means transforming the intimate and up-close structures that reproduce the dominant ideology, creating alternatives by building and winning power, and creating leadership in that struggle.

In our own postmodern times, where nebulous social movements have replaced the powerful working-class parties of distant eras, and where socialist organization rarely leaves the margins of political life and the system is rigged against third party politics, a socialist party is not the vehicle for this work — but the socialist movement, when tied to transformative organizing work can be. Our goal must be to build a durable counter hegemony — not by “present[ing] [ourselves] at the outset in a polemical and critical guise,” but transforming the commonsense by transforming everyday experience, by organizing around the texture of daily life, the part of our lives spent navigating civil society — what Gramsci calls the “simple.” Our long march through the institutions is not to reform them, but to transform the common sense they uphold.

This is precisely what the recent financial crisis represents: a location for this kind of counter hegemonic consciousness transformation. While the critical and polemical approach has largely failed, another model has proven its ability to build working-class power, transform the common sense, and contribute to a durable counter hegemony. Such is the growing anti-foreclosure movement with its model of radical organizing.

This model was pioneered by City Life/Vida Urbana, a grassroots organizing project that began as a socialist community organization in the 1970s and has changed its focus with the shifting needs of its base. While other sectarian groups born of that same era died out, City Life’s brand of non-sectarian, practical, democratic socialist organizing survived and thrived. When the foreclosure crisis hit, City Life quickly shifted to begin organizing homeowners (a group typically viewed as homogeneously white, middle-class, individualistic property owners) and tenants in foreclosed buildings (a group typically viewed as working-class and people of color). Most have imagined these groups pitted against each other rather than fighting side-by-side.

Class, however, isn’t an abstract category, but the product of real people in a real context. And so City Life organizes real people in the context of the foreclosure crisis, making unlikely alliances possible. Their work with this coalition in the working class neighborhoods of Boston has defended hundreds of homeowners and tenants from displacement at the hands of the big banks. Their mass meetings reach hundreds, their mobilizations, thousands — and they have begun spreading their work throughout Massachusetts and beyond. City Life and the radical housing movement are pushing for non-reformist reforms, primarily by building a movement to decommodify housing and delegitimize market ideology.

Threatened and displaced homeowners have fought back not because they embraced an abstract structural critique from the outset, but because City Life’s organizing work has remained in touch with their everyday life needs, practices, and common sense. The combination of concrete victories, the development of a culture of solidarity, and the development of a political analysis are what allow the group to contest hegemony.

City Life has successfully protected hundreds of families from displacement, often with militant eviction blockades. But the depth of its organizing is shown in how many continue to fight for others’ homes even after they have lost their own. For dozens, City Life’s meetings are a routine part of their life, even years after their individual struggle is over.

While broad structural change is the ultimate goal of City Life, it recognizes that such change requires a mass movement and that what builds a mass movement is fighting and winning smaller battles. On the level of everyday experience, winning a “small battle” means something quite big. These victories transform the disempowerment built into the daily life of these communities. Moreover, solidarity isn’t something that is taught — it is lived and built.

Collective affirmation through techniques such as storytelling and call-and-response are continuously present at meetings and actions. Through these and other routine practices of struggle and group formation, City Life creates its own social universe where dominant culture is turned upside down — where collective struggle and continuously fighting for others often becomes more important than one’s own home. The organization uses political education and discussion, which are present in every meeting, to allow homeowners and tenants the moral space to challenge disempowering dominant ideologies. Foreclosure is the first site of education, and it is this initial focus on a “narrow issue” coupled with an accessible yet expansive political education that allows homeowners and tenants to develop a deeper structural awareness.

So much of left analysis is from “scratch” because it is socially and culturally removed from the lived experience of the structures it critiques. Our intellectuals are usually inorganic ones — they speak from a place of cultural and linguistic distance. One of City Life’s primary tasks is fostering organic intellectuals among the people who are best suited to elaborate a structural analysis given their proximity to the foreclosure crisis: homeowners and tenants. They are not just eloquent orators acting as a mouthpiece, but are on the ground and integrated into the affected group. They know about how things actually work, feel, and are accomplished, and they share the structural critique on both practical and intellectual levels. They make the best organizers for advancing a war of position.

City Life’s model has spread throughout Massachusetts, to New York, Washington, and beyond. The socialist left, with waning relevance and few recent successes to speak of, should take note of a growing Gramscian organizing project that is taking the offensive against finance capital. It is not just a matter of replicating City Life’s work, but of replicating the spirit of its organizing model.

We must find new and creative ways to address structural issues at the level of experience and culture. Gramsci may be frequently invoked, but he is practically misunderstood. By building a counter hegemony, he meant more than peddling a pre-fabricated alternative to capitalist ideology. People don’t embrace a counter-hegemony, they build it. Left organization must provide the building tools.

The attempt to wage a war of position by laying out a series of arguments to be expounded and embraced, by attempting to “introduce from scratch a scientific form of thought into everyone’s individual life,” the Left fails to take Gramsci seriously — and in this era, we must all be Gramscians.


Demand Everything: Lessons of the Transformative Organizing Model

By Steve Williams

Published by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, New York Office, March 2013.

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When protesters around the world took to the squares and streets beginning in late 2010 from Tunisia to Chile, from Egypt to Spain, from Greece to the United States, leftists around the world strapped on their marching shoes and took hope that this might be the dawning of a new era in the fight against capitalist austerity and imperial savagery. Taken aback by these protests, corporate news outlets cast a blind eye to the years of community organizing, worker strikes, and student take-overs that laid the foundation for the actions that were to come. The only explanation they could offer was that Twitter, Facebook and YouTube made these revolutions. While social media played a role, they were tools that organizers employed to do their work more effectively. In the end, these explanations obscured the critical role of organizing. It was the often invisible work of organizing—in workplaces, communities, and classrooms—that combined with the ripeness of the times and the hunger of the people to break the façade of neoliberal triumphalism.

Two years later, many of these movements have lost their initial momentum, but the hope has not been extinguished. The need for fundamental social change is still there, if not more urgent. Today, radical and left forces need to commit to organizing more than ever. In recent decades, much of what would be called the U.S. Left has not taken on the work of building organization among the popular forces—working people; people of color; low-income people; homeless people; gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender folks; and students. There is a long and rich history of communists, socialists, nationalists, and anarchists in the United States rooting themselves in local communities, workplaces, and classrooms to build the capacity and consciousness of the people. This tradition must be resurrected. The Left must take on the challenge of building organization amongst the forces that are most likely to spearhead a movement to challenge capitalism, imperialism and climate catastrophe.

But even if there is to be a resurgence of organizing, there remains the question of how to organize since not all models of organizing are created equal. One thing is clear: the old models will not do. The collapse of political, economic and ecological structures mean that purely transactional concessions will not address the acute needs of people around the world. New models of organizing are needed, models that combine the audacity of the people who took to the streets with the ripeness for change that this moment demands.

The most obvious choice for organizing model might be the teachings of the man whose name has become synonymous with organizing. Saul Alinsky began organizing in low-income neighborhoods like the Back of the Yards neighborhood of Chicago in the 1930s, and then went on to found the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) in 1940. Through the IAF and his book, Rules for Radicals, Alinsky trained thousands of skilled organizers, and hundreds of organizations cite him as a direct or indirect influence more than forty years after his death. Today, many of those organizations and organizations continue to do important and truly radical work.

Like all other theories, Alinsky’s model of organizing was developed in a particular time in an effort to respond to other—in this case competing—theories of organizing. Alinsky began organizing low-income communities during a period where leftists of various trends were actively engaged in dozens of active and vibrant community action projects—from anti-lynching campaigns to eviction defense work to food relief. After the McCarthy witch-hunts of the 1950s, most leftists had been killed, jailed, deported, or scared off so that most of those community action projects withered away. Contrasting his model with that of the 1930s Left and with that of the emerging movements in the 1960s, Alinsky framed his as a pragmatic and anti-ideological model of organizing “rooted in the whys and wherefores of life as it is lived,” and not in “our wished for fantasy of the world as it should be.”[1] Opportunistically, he posed his approach as a way of neutralizing more explicitly left social movements:

[I]n order to involve the Catholic priests in Back of the Yards, I didn’t give them any stuff about Christian ethics, I just appealed to their self-interest. I’d say, “Look, you’re telling your people to stay out of the Communist-dominated unions and action groups, right?” He’d nod. So I’d go on: “And what do they do? They say, ‘Yes, Father,’ and walk out of the church and join the C.I.O. Why? Because it’s their bread and butter, because the C.I.O. is doing something about their problems while you’re sitting here on your tail in the sacristy.” That stirred ’em up, which is just what I wanted to do, and then I’d say, “Look, if you go on like that you’re gonna alienate your parishioners, turn them from the Church, maybe drive them into the arms of the Reds. Your only hope is to move first, to beat the Communists at their own game, to show the people you’re more interested in their living conditions than the contents of your collection plate. And not only will you get them back again by supporting their struggle, but when they win they’ll be more prosperous and your donations will go up and the welfare of the Church will be enhanced.” Now I’m talking their language and we can sit down and hammer out a deal.[2]

Alinsky’s attempt to strip the organizing model of ideology manifests in various concrete practices. For example, the Alinsky model of organizing insists that organizations should only wage winnable fights and that the organizer should refrain from bringing her political views into the organization’s discourse. Though this decision is understandable given the state-sponsored repression brought down on left and radical movements in the United States throughout history, the ramifications of this decision render the Alinsky model of organizing impotent relative to contemporary challenges because ideology is a central front on which Left and progressive forces must struggle.

The ideological assault mounted by the neoliberal camp for the past fours decades means that success depends on the Left’s ability to articulate an alternative vision of the economy and society. The absence of ideological struggle and the current balance of forces have produced conditions where structural change is deemed politically unwinnable. As a result, progressive forces exert most of our energy simply trying to make bad policy and practices less bad, never addressing the systems and structures causing this inequity. Alinsky’s insistence that the organizer silence her ideas lest they weaken the organization is both unrealistic and counter-productive. We need all hands on deck, and organizers have a unique opportunity to bring out the best of our dreams and aspirations to inspire a movement. Radical and progressive forces must find and develop approaches to social change that allow us to unite ideology with day-to-day campaigns.

The building blocks of these new organizing models do exist. Without discarding the contributions of Alinsky’s model of organizing, radical and progressive forces must seek inspiration and guidance from a wide array of expertise. Combining the tactical audacity of the Alinsky model with the grassroots democracy of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNNC), the participatory structures of the Piquetero movement, and the analysis of the South African Anti-Privatization Forum, we have the basic ingredients of an organizing model that will allow us to confront the scale of the challenges facing the planet and humanity. In recent years, there has been a growing effort to codify and articulate a model of organizing that can build the power necessary to confront and counter the problems we face today while building for tomorrow. This new model, which is the accumulation of practices past and present, has come to be called transformative organizing.

If organizing is the attempt to bring people together to take collective action to resolve a commonly identified problem, then transformative organizing is a particular approach to organizing that situates individual campaigns within a conscious analysis of the underlying systems of exploitation and oppression. Transformative organizing is defined by its explicit intention to transform both those systems and the individuals engaged in those campaigns in an effort to win genuine liberation for all. The model is still in development, but the practice that it is based on is strong and growing in the United States and around the globe. Of course, transformative organizing looks very different based on the place and conditions in which that work is happening. Transformative organizing looks different in Grahamstown, South Africa than it does in San Francisco, United States, but there are core principles that are shared by transformative organizations. The core principles of the transformative organizing model include:

  1. Walk with Vision
  2. Reach Out to Listen and Learn
  3. Revolutionary Edge of Reform
  4. Democracy Is Power
  5. Cultivate Leaders
  6. Build Strategic Alliances
  7. Commit to Movement
  8. Extract Every Lesson
  9. Personal Is Political

What follows is a brief description of each of the components of the transformative organizing model. In these descriptions, I draw on the experiences that I had founding and working at POWER (People Organized to Win Employment Rights), a community-based organization in San Francisco.[3] It’s not that POWER’s approach was always the correct approach. The organizations that are attempting to shape the transformative organizing model all deal with similar challenges and often take different approaches to addressing those challenges. While I could have drawn examples from the practice of a variety of transformative organizations, I use POWER as an example, not because this work was without shortcomings, but because that’s where my practice and my lessons have been rooted for the last decade and a half. I offer these lessons in a spirit of openness with the intention of helping to advance our struggles.


1. Walk with Vision

Virtually all organizing begins with a problem. People, agitated by a particular problem in their community or workplace, make the bold decision to come together with others to try to fix that problem.

It’s tempting to believe that the elimination of that problem is a sufficiently clear vision. During a period of neoliberal austerity, state-sanctioned violence, and social hostility, winning even the most modest reform can require an illusive combination of skill, timing, and luck. At their best, these victories produce concessions from ruling elites, but they do not alter the fundamental balance of power. For some organizing models, this has been enough.

However, the transformative organizing model takes the long-view of success. This model begins with the assessment that social problems all have structural, global, and historical roots, so even if we are successful in our campaign to address one particular problem, the transformative organizer must recognize that the structural inequities that prompted this problem will continue to create other problems—unless the root cause of those problems is eradicated for good. That’s why the transformative organizing model aims at nothing less than to eradicate the root causes of the problems that we experience. This means that the transformative organization must walk on two legs. Because we do not yet have the power necessary to shift the balance of power, the transformative organization must wage campaigns with the larger objective in mind. The transformative organization must fight and walk with vision.

This means that the transformative organization must devote resources to identifying and clarifying its shared vision of the social transformations it is trying to achieve. This is obviously no small task, and it requires taking time to discuss that which is not obviously connected to day-to-day struggles. Ultimately, the responsibility of articulating such a vision goes beyond individual organizations. The larger movement must take up the task of articulating a broader vision. The absence of such a clearly articulated vision is one of the central weaknesses that has plagued the Left in the United States and in many parts of the world, especially since the collapse of the 20th century socialist experiments. But until such time that the movement crafts such a vision, it is up to individual organizations to shape their visions. Clarity of vision can sharpen much of an organization’s work, from identifying core constituencies, potential allies, and targets to shaping campaign demands and coalitions.

POWER did this beginning in 2010. After a series of stinging defeats and hard-fought stalemates and in the midst of ongoing outreach and campaign work, POWER’s staff and members engaged in a series of conversations where we tried to answer the question: “What might victory look like?” From those conversations, we identified rising costs for lower levels of public service as a general problem confronting various sectors of society in San Francisco. In the realm of public transportation, this meant higher fares for rides on overcrowded buses that came less frequently. This trend flew in the face of what we identified as a core part of our vision: that public transportation is a vital common good which should be free for everyone. That is true not only because it allows people to travel to various parts of the city for work, education, and recreation, but because it also provides a vital intervention in the effort to reduce carbon emissions and fight climate change.

Our development of an even rudimentary vision, along with the city’s recent decision to eliminate school bus service, led POWER to launch a campaign calling for the city to provide free public transportation for all young people. This demand was a departure from how the organization would have framed this campaign in previous years. Before refining our vision, we would have called for the provision of free public transportation only for low-income young people. This new demand helped to position POWER not as an organization seeking to win charitable concessions for only low-income people but as a force aiming to expand the commons of San Francisco. This framing of the demand allowed POWER to build relationships with a new set of organizations and social forces, and it pushed us to explain why using public funds to provide free public transportation to wealthy young people was a prudent use of those funds.

In December 2012, POWER members and our coalition partners successfully forced the city to provide free transit only to low-income, young people, but the organization is now positioned to engage in other debates and has a broader grouping of allies that will allow us to up the ante on our future campaigns.

For the transformative organization, vision is an integral component of the organizing work; it’s more than a slogan used on organizational communications. It must be a dynamic presence, informing all the organization’s decisions in the same way that the North Star provided constant inspiration and guidance to those people of African descent escaping slavery in the treacherous terrain of the antebellum United States. Vision is the foundation of an organization’s effectiveness.


2. Reach Out to Listen and Learn

One of the most fundamental aspects of all organizing models is the commitment to reaching out and talking to members of the target constituency. After all, organizing—at its core—is simply the process of bringing people together to take collective action. For every constituency or community, this outreach might look different. Organizing residents of public housing might involve going door-to-door. Organizing workers might involve going to their workplace or to a popular bar. For us, at the beginning of POWER’s history, outreach meant sneaking into the local welfare office to talk to workfare workers.

Outreach is seldom easy, especially at the beginning. Do it long enough, and you’ll meet someone who doesn’t want to talk. You might be harassed (This can be especially challenging for women organizers or for organizers reaching out to constituencies different from themselves). You’ll get commitments from people, only to have them not show up at the meeting or action to which you’d invited them. In contemporary, Western societies that have become extremely individualized and where some corporations attempt to hide workers out of view, the organizer is breaking through social and political barriers which discourage going up and talking to someone that you don’t know.

This was certainly my experience with POWER. In 1996, I began doing outreach in San Francisco welfare offices in an attempt to form a community-based union of workfare workers, whom the City then required to do work in exchange for a monthly welfare grant. The work that workfare workers were required to do had previously been performed by unionized, civil service employees who earned $2,409 – $4,644 per month plus benefits. This was fair compensation at the time. Workfare workers though earned only $345 per month with no benefits and no opportunity to apply for the permanent positions were they to open up.

Not knowing that there was a policy against it, I walked into the welfare office and began passing out flyers and having conversations with people about the idea of forming an organization of workfare workers. I had a decent first week. I’d had some good conversations. I’d only been ignored a couple of times, but in the second week, the building security came up to ask what I was doing. When I told them, they told me that I had to leave, that the office was only for people applying for assistance. I left, but I would not be deterred. Over the next few weeks, I re-entered the welfare office with various disguises. I’d cut my hair, grow my facial hair, wear a hat— anything to get in twenty to thirty minutes of outreach. In time, these guerrilla outreach efforts produced a core group of members who shared the responsibility of reaching out to the people. A good organizer will always find a way to overcome the obstacles to reaching out to the targeted constituency, even if it means doing something that she’ll have to ask forgiveness for later on.

It’s critical that the organizer remember that outreach is the most fundamental ingredient of organizing. Outreach is the lifeblood of any organization. Rarely will people seek out an organization to join. The organizer’s first task is to give people permission to join with others in an effort to change the world. Outreach can be intimidating, but it can also be magical. All it takes is having one animated conversation with someone who has been yearning for a constructive outlet for their hope and rage. Those moments are the constant reminder of the transformative capacity of person-to-person interactions.

The issue of how the outreach is done is of central importance to the transformative organization. Many people’s experience with being approached by a stranger is not pleasant—whether it’s being accosted by someone trying to sell something or someone making unwanted sexual advances. Too many people in the United States have had the experience of being approached by a young militant trying to sell a newspaper from their revolutionary organization. The newspaper is merely a prop in those instances. The purpose of the interaction seems to be for the newspaper vendor to rave about the newspaper’s positions and to ridicule any dissenting views. This is not an example of transformative organizing’s approach to outreach. Transformative organizing’s commitment is to reaching out for the purpose of listening and learning.

Transformative organizing views its constituency as a strategic source of information and insight. For this reason, transformative organizations do not do outreach just to give information. Transformative organizing is not about proselytizing. Transformative organizing understands that effective outreach is an exchange. The transformative organizer offers an invitation to participate in the work of the organization and updates on this work; meanwhile, the organizer receives vital information about the conditions in the community or workplace, reflections on the organization’s campaign, and suggestions about what might strengthen the struggle.

The organizer reaches out as much, if not more, in order to learn as she does to inform. In fact, in all POWER’s training, new—and senior—organizers are pushed to speak no more than 30% of an interaction. The skill of asking provocative and engaging questions not only invites new and revealing information from the people, it also engages them so that they see themselves as a part of the organization and, as a result, are more likely to attend actions and meetings. This can take many different forms, from the posing of engaging questions to soliciting feedback on what different members of the community see as the most pressing issues. Based on this input, the members and leaders of the transformative organization might synthesize these ideas with their own research in order to develop radical and progressive initiatives that grow organically from the community’s aspirations and experiences. Those synthesized proposals might, then, be brought back to the community for feedback or ratification. This is not outreach as a perfunctory task. It is a part of the transformative organization’s process of developing genuine and lasting relationships to ensure that the transformative organization is rooted in and accountable to a constituency which is seen as a political force.

Clearly, this model of the organizer as a skilled interviewer and listener is very different than the macho image of the organizer as the charismatic savior of a community able to inspire the masses and strike fear into the hearts of the wicked. Too often people come into organizing work thinking that they will either be good or will not be good depending on their interest in public speaking. Depending on the situation, an organizer might be called upon to deliver a compelling oration, but transformative organizing is not about speechifying; transformative organizing is about developing the capacity of people to raise their own voices. Especially since the first interactions can be so formative, it is critical that transformative organizations develop organizers’ orientation and capacity to reach out for the purpose of listening.


3. Revolutionary Edge of Reform

In San Francisco, the unemployment rate among African Americans and Latinos is roughly 25%—more than double the national average. The incarceration rate is skyrocketing, and the housing crisis has stolen more than 40% of the African American community’s pre-2008 wealth. Funding for the public education, public transit, and public heath systems—which overwhelmingly serve African American, Latino, Asian American, and Pacific Islander communities—have been slashed dramatically over the past ten years. Meanwhile, corporations like Twitter, GenenTech, and large developers receive tens of millions of dollars in public subsidies. San Francisco is in no way unique in this respect. Communities all over the globe are experiencing similar levels of cutbacks and crackdowns while the one percent are living the gated lives of robber barons. In this context, there’s no shortage of meaningful campaigns that an organization might take up.

Certainly, resistance is critical. It is important to fight back against bad policies and practices; in an era of never-ending neoliberal assault, any and all resistance is noble. While resistance is necessary, it is not sufficient if we aim to achieve true liberation and the elimination of overlapping systems of exploitation and oppression. Our resistance must move us towards achieving our larger objectives, and some campaigns are simply more strategic to helping us reach our goals than others. The task of the transformative organization is to seek out those campaigns and activities that have the greatest potential to improve the lives of the constituency and of the working class and also to unleash new opportunities to engage and win future fights that move us towards our long-term vision.

The transformative organization must not fall into the trap of reformism, but at the same time, it must not cling to extreme demands that have offer no opportunity for social struggle. The question is how to find the revolutionary edge of reform fights.

In attempting to balance these concerns, transformative organizing is guided by the ideas of hegemony and counter-hegemony developed by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. The ruling class, Gramsci observed, has not only the coercive power of the state apparatus but is also able to exert moral and intellectual leadership. This moral and intellectual leadership allows the ruling class to win the consent of dominated classes to their continued domination by convincing the those classes that the interests of the ruling class are the interests of all. Gramsci poses that the task for revolutionaries in these contexts is not vainly calling for the most radical demands; rather, he advocates political struggle in which the popular and exploited classes struggle for hegemony. Those classes do that by engaging in campaigns and advancing demands that bring various sectors of society together in fights that begin to shift the terrain of struggle, thereby making struggles for more radical demands possible. This orientation, of course, requires clarity around vision, assessment of forces, and strategy.

The process of identifying new campaigns for POWER always begins by surveying members and constituents. That information is combined with a revised assessment of the organization’s vision. All this is then placed in the particular context of San Francisco’s economic, social, and political conditions. Using the power analysis tools developed by Anthony Thigpen, POWER attempts to assess which constituencies and organizations might be aligned with our objectives and which we might be able to win over. This information begins to give shape to the organization’s campaign work. To assist us in finding the revolutionary edge of reform struggles, POWER members and staff assess the degree to which a campaign provides opportunities to:

  • Improve the living and working conditions for POWER’s membership, for POWER’s constituency, and for the broader working class.
  • Establish building blocks of the organization’s long-term vision.
  • Build the power of and deepen the solidarity among various sectors of the working-class, of low-income people, and of people of color.
  • Undermine the power of the ruling class and its institutions.
  • Shift public discourse to make larger victories possible by undermining the logic oppression (i.e., capitalism, imperialism, white supremacy, patriarchy, etc.).
  • Develop the leadership of the organization’s members and staff.
  • Expand and deepen strategic and tactical alliances with key forces.
  • Grow the membership and strengthen the organization.

Perhaps the greatest danger to the transformative organization attempting to find the revolutionary edge of reform fights is dressing a reformist fight in revolutionary rhetoric. These criteria, along with regular reflection and evaluation of the organization’s work, help our assessment be as sober and grounded as possible.

While the criteria are not a mathematical formula, they do provide a set of parameters for the transformative organization to evaluate potential campaign work. A campaign may not score well on all the criteria, but we can use these factors to evaluate which campaigns offer the most potential. They also help determine how the organization shapes the campaign strategy. Transformative organizing, at its best, seeks the revolutionary potential of campaign struggles and then wages those campaigns with tenacity and finesse.


4. Democracy is Power

Democracy is in crisis in the United States. There are notable attempts to disenfranchise working-class people and communities of color—from voter suppression campaigns to the institutional prohibition against those who have been convicted of a felony and those who live in this country without legal residency papers. But the practice of democratic participation is also eroding for residents who have the right to cast a ballot. Democratic participation is more fairy tale than a lot of people would care to admit.

Democracy must be a defining practice of transformative organizing. This is not a matter of moralism. Democratic engagement can build the skills and consciousness necessary to building a strong organization, movement, or society. In POWER’s early days, we were engaged in a campaign that targeted a public sector union that refused to allow workfare workers to speak for themselves. That union had included a provision in its new contract with the city that called for the formation of a committee to discuss any future changes that were proposed to the workfare program. The committee, as stipulated by the contract, would have been made up of six representatives of the union and six representatives from the city—and zero workfare workers.

When we heard about this workfare committee, the members of POWER were initially pleased since we had been trying unsuccessfully to get the issue of workfare on the union’s agenda for months. It seemed like we had finally made a breakthrough. As for the exclusion of workfare workers from the committee, we thought that was merely an oversight. That is until our repeated calls to union officials went unanswered. As days passed and the contract moved to the City Council for ratification, POWER members decided to stage a protest. Since the contract called for a committee made up of twelve people who were not workfare workers, we demanded that the committee be expanded to include thirteen workfare workers and that until then, the council members should reject the contract.

POWER mobilized 100 workfare workers and allies for that first demonstration, and we convinced the City Council to table the matter for further investigation. Satisfied with our initial stand, we returned to a mountain of phone messages from several of the most powerful labor leaders in San Francisco. All the messages urged me to call them immediately. Everyone I spoke to expressed the same message: if POWER did not stop these protests, then the labor movement would cast us as anti-union and they would never work with us again.

I was shaken. After all, I saw POWER as a progressive voice in a re-invigorating labor movement. The organization’s founding strategy revolved around organizing workers in the informal sectors so that we could ally with organized workers in the formal sectors in order to mount a counter-offensive against the tyranny of capital. A part of me that thought we should stop the protests. But POWER had developed democratic structures of decision-making, so I knew that the decision was not mine alone to make; that decision fell under the purview of the Steering Committee, an elected body of leaders charged with making the strategic and tactical decisions about all aspects of the organization’s work.

When I reported back on the labor leaders’ threats, POWER’s members seemed unimpressed, so I stressed how serious the threats seemed. Garth Ferguson, one of the members of the Steering Committee, raised his hand and said that he had a couple of clarifying questions, “So you’re telling us that they’re going to call us names?”

“They’ll label us anti-union,” I responded.

“Well, I’ve been called lots of names before, and as a gay man who’s worked blue collar jobs my whole life, I don’t think ‘anti-union’ would be the worst name I’ve ever been called,” Garth answered. The rest of the Steering Committee laughed in agreement. He then continued, “You also said that they told you that if we continue that they’d never work with us again. My question is when have they ever stood by us in one of our campaigns?” The second round of laughter made the position of the Steering Committee members obvious. We voted unanimously to continue our protests to win a seat for workfare workers at the table.

After two more protests, each of which drew more people than the last, and just as the City Council was about to take a final vote on the proposed contract, the president of the Labor Council ran up to us and said the union was willing to give in to our demands. This victory was made possible because of the organization’s commitment to democracy, to ensuring that decisions be made by those who are most impacted by those decisions. In this case, the members made a better decision than I might have made by myself, and in my experience, groups tend to make better decisions than isolated individuals, especially if those groups are able to cultivate a culture of respectful engagement. However, this is not to romanticize the wisdom of collective decision-making. Groups of people are certainly capable of making bad decisions. History is not short of examples of this, but in the context of an organization, a group’s bad decisions can strengthen an organization over the long term. Engaging people increases their commitment to the project.

One of the most difficult features to cultivate in an organization is a sense of ownership. So often, prospective members would approach POWER and ask us to “fix” a problem that they were experiencing. Even after we explained that we operated on a basis of collective action where “we” all work to resolve the problem, new members would often refer to POWER in the second- or third-person. “What I think you should do is…” or “When I told POWER about my problems, they helped us confront my boss…” Until a member began referring to the organization in the first-person, we knew that they had not fully integrated into the organization’s work and practices, but when that same member began saying, “I think that we should…”, it was clear that they had taken the organization on as an extension of themselves. While this is the desired outcome, for most people, it is a process that can take weeks, months, or even years, and it requires a supportive environment. Clear and deliberate organizational structures and practices can greatly accelerate this process. Members see that they have the opportunity and are expected to make key decisions and to carry them out. When that happens, they are willing to take on more and more responsibility to ensure that the organization succeeds. In some ways, this is compounded when a group makes what some might consider a bad decision. In those moments, members see that there is no hidden committee waiting to veto the group’s decision. The organization’s practice matches its rhetoric, and more often than not, members work doubly hard to make the best of the decision that they participated in making, and with evaluation, the group is likely to make better decisions in the future. In both cases, the organization is strengthened.

This is a critical lesson for any organizer, but an especially critical one for organizers who come from different life experiences that the constituents he or she is attempting to organize. POWER’s approach builds on the insights of Paulo Freire when he wrote:

Certain members of the oppressor class join the oppressed in their struggle for liberation, thus moving from one pole of the contradiction to the other. Theirs is a fundamental role, and has been so throughout the history of this struggle. It happens, however, that as they cease to be exploiters or indifferent spectators… and move to the side of the exploited, they almost always bring with them the marks of their origin: their prejudices and their deformations, which include a lack of confidence in the peoples ability to think, to want, and to know. Accordingly, these adherents to the people’s cause constantly run the risk of falling into a type of generosity as malefic as that of the oppressors… They believe that they must be the executors of the transformation. They talk about the people, but they do not trust them; and trusting the people is the indispensable precondition for revolutionary change. A real humanist can be identified more by his trust in the people, which engages him in their struggle, than by a thousand actions in their favor without that trust.[4]

In a society where the opportunity for democratic participation is usurped, organizational structures and practices give people the opportunity to develop a vital set of skills that might otherwise go under-developed. Through engagement and collective decision-making, members learn how to build solidarity with people different from themselves. This can transform an individual’s expectations. After seeing genuine and thoughtful democratic participation, the benefits seem obvious, and members are unwilling to do without it in any aspect of their lives. We’ve seen this happen time and time again.

Democratic practice is a critical part of the transformative organizing model both because it tends to produce better decisions and because it deepens our capacity for and insistence on democracy in all aspects of our lives.


5. Cultivate Leaders

In order to achieve truly democratic practice, a transformative organization has to devote time and energy to growing leaders who can take up and share a diverse set of roles and responsibilities within the organization.

Leadership is a controversial topic in progressive circles. Much of this controversy grows out of the long and sordid history of unaccountable leaders, who have withheld critical information, who have exploited their positions to usurp uncommon privilege, and who have squashed debate in order to secure their positions—and not only from the ruling elite, but also leaders in progressive and left movements. The weight of that legacy represents a challenge that radicals must confront.

Some movement activists have decided to confront this challenge by proclaiming that leaders don’t exist. The position often begins with an analysis that views power imbalances as the root cause of problems in the world. The intervention, then, is to declare the absence of leaders, but this intervention though often misses its mark. Those interventions didn’t abolish leadership. What they abolished was the naming of leaders and the articulation of how anyone can become a leader. The result was that those people who filled leadership functions could not be held accountable—which they themselves often wanted—and it was exceedingly difficult for new members to step into leadership roles.

The approach that we took at POWER was, and continues to be, to expect that people will bring their best and that with appropriate support and accountability, we can all do more than we believe possible. The transformative organizing promotes accountable leadership by cultivating leadership skills among a diverse group of individuals and institutionalizing leadership in ways that makes explicit the leadership that is being exerted and that promotes lots of people to leadership roles at different times. As with all other interventions, this approach has had successes and its share of challenges, but on the whole, this approach has demonstrated its effectiveness.

Over the course of more than ten years, POWER worked on three levels to become more efficient in nurturing people’s leadership capacity. One level was institutional; the next was collective trainings; and the third, individual practice.

Institutionally, we came to learn that for most people, POWER was the first membership organization that they had joined as an adult. Many members came into the organization after years of interacting with service providers, case workers, and lawyers where the dominant mode of interaction was one where that person came in to request assistance and then waited. After some time, that person would be notified of the decision that had been made— by some nameless, unresponsive force.[5] As a result, the workings of organization—when meetings happened, how decisions were made, where those decision were made, and who made them—all seemed mystical experiences that happened behind a secret curtain. In order to facilitate members’ integration into active engagement, POWER members and staff created structures and then made explicit the roles that those structures were designed to play. One of those new structures, for example, was a new member orientation which serves as an in-person user manual to the organization. We developed this orientation when we heard from new members that they spend much of their first months in the organization confused about what was happening and why. Creating structures like the new member orientation and communicating their functions helped to demystify the organization and what it means to be an active member of POWER. Another of the structures is the steering committee, which is now an elected body that serves as the organization’s primary decision-making body. All members are invited to attend steering committee meetings to observe and offer comment on the group’s deliberations. This has increased members’ appreciation for the amount of work required to play a leadership role and has given steering committee members opportunities to get ongoing and honest feedback on their performance and their decisions.

In addition to institutionalizing leadership, POWER has created several political education and leadership development training programs whose purpose is to cultivate a broad set of leadership skills among a wide range of the membership. Rather than defining leadership as a very narrow set of skills, we have defined leadership as the contributions that people make to strengthen and further the work of the organization and the movement. We see the ability to inspire others with a rousing speech as one aspect of leadership, but we also see as leadership the ability to gracefully facilitate a meeting so that the group can make a difficult decision. Leadership is the ability to listen and build trusting relationships with others so that they are willing to share with you their deepest concerns and aspirations. Leadership is organizing food to sustain participants in a long protest. Leadership is the ability to devise cunning tactics and strategies that advance the campaign’s demands. Leadership takes many different forms. Some are more easily observed, but all are important and all need to be appreciated and cultivated.

Leaders are the foundation upon which organization can be built. Corporations hire in order to provide the requisite incentives to compel people take up a wide array of tasks. From the outset, we knew that neither the movement nor the organization would ever have enough money to hire all the people that we would need in order to topple the status quo; the movement would need to develop leaders from the constituencies that have the most to gain by challenging and eradicating the systems of oppression and exploitation. This was the impetus behind the initiation of POWER University. POWER University is now a two-tiered, political education and leadership development program designed to move members into various leadership positions in the organization and to move organizational leaders into various leadership roles in broader social movements. The pedagogy of all POWER’s leadership development draws from the teachings of Paulo Friere and Myles Horton.[6] The central premise behind both these educators’ work is that ordinary people amass a tremendous amount of wisdom moving through the world. Where most educational models presume to dump new knowledge into the heads of empty vessels, this approach seeks to draw from and build on the knowledge that people have cultivated through their experience. Guided by this perspective, POWER University covers Marxist theoretical concepts and advanced skills but does so by rooting those concepts in the members’ own lived experiences.

For POWER, leadership is a collective responsibility. Often multiple people take on leadership roles, but even when only one person takes on this role, we recognize that the people not assuming these roles can greatly influence the organization’s success or failure. For example, there might be one person facilitating a meeting, a role that might traditionally be classified as a leadership role. But it is also true that the person taking minutes of the meeting, the person welcoming and orienting new members, and the person asking questions in a way that moves the process forward are all contributing to the facilitation of the meeting and to the success of the organization. They are all leaders. POWER’s leadership development program cultivates what we refer to as followship skills as well because blind and passive obedience is incompatible with accountable leadership.

Some have criticized POWER for spending so much time and energy offering political education trainings for members and staff. Others have said that their organization simply doesn’t have the time to do such extensive leadership development. It is true that by doing this work, we were deciding not to take on some other work, but our experience has been that by investing in the development of new leaders, the organization is strengthened. Members are able to take up work they might not otherwise feel comfortable doing, and members remain active in the organization’s work for longer periods of time because, according to their evaluations, they do not see where else they can receive this level of leadership development and political education.

POWER’s approach to growing and nurturing leadership does not happen only in trainings. Activists learn to lead by doing, so POWER places a premium on supporting and encouraging people to take on new roles, often roles that they themselves would have thought themselves incapable of. But rather than simply throwing people into roles that they are unprepared for—which can have a demoralizing impact—organizers and other leaders spend much of their time having one-on-one meetings with members and prospective leaders. In these meetings, members and organizers work together to develop plans to develop and sharpen the member’s leadership skills. Whether it’s facilitating a meeting, presenting a testimony at a legislative hearing, or speaking at a rally, members take on leading roles in many of the organization’s activities, and after each of those activities, the leader has an opportunity to evaluate the experience—to analyze what went well and what might have gone better and to think about what to change in the future. Hundreds of leaders at POWER have emerged out of this process. Many of those leaders are still active with POWER, but even for those who aren’t, the skills and perspectives that they learn and cultivate through POWER’s leadership development program equip them to take a proactive role in addressing any challenge they experience in their personal lives, in their workplaces, and in their communities.


6. Build Strategic Alliances

Most community-based organizations build coalitions to give them a better chance of winning their campaign demands. The basis of the unity that brings those organizations and individuals together is their support for the demand that the coalition is calling for—whether it’s an increased minimum wage, the prosecution of a murderous police officer, or the passage of legislation to establish labor protections for domestic workers.

Building strong coalitions is not anything that should be taken lightly. It requires a high level of attention, skill, and flexibility. Each organization involved in the coalition comes with its own unique customs, procedures, and interests. Every organization must be willing to adjust its practice in order to maintain unity with the other organizations. Ultimately, organizations take these steps because they are committed to achieving the coalition’s goals.

A transformative organization must see that unity as tactical. The organizations participating in a coalition likely have differing visions and strategic orientations. This difference need not be a point of contention although remembering that can be difficult. It was for POWER. In its early days, POWER looked to build unity around questions of long-term vision and strategy with coalitional allies. This was important to us because we saw how our long-term vision influenced the immediate decisions we chose in our campaign work, and we didn’t have another outlet to have these conversations with other organizers. But attempting to build this long-term unity with organizations and individuals who had different visions was a distraction to the coalition. After long, contentious debates, we would often return to our office complaining about how problematic our coalition members were being, but after some reflection, the members and organizers of POWER realized that we were a part of the problem. We were seeking a level of political unity that was unrealistic. Coalitions are forged by the tactical unity of shared work and a shared commitment to achieving the campaign’s demands, but we wanted more.

This realization prompted POWER to couple our tactical alliance-building work with work to build strategic alliances with organizations that shared our long-term vision and strategic orientation. Some of those organizations worked with very different constituencies. Some worked on different issues. And others were based in far away cities, but the relationships that POWER was able to build with organizations like Causa Justa :: Just Cause, the Chinese Progressive Association, Coleman Advocates, the Miami Workers Center, CAAAV, and the Labor Community Strategy Center, among others helped to refine and sharpen POWER’s vision and practice as much, if not more, than work with tactical allies.

Many of the exchanges among our strategic partners were informal—ongoing conversations between organizers, directors, and leaders. Instead of trying to find work to do together, we would reflect on the minutiae of how we do the work—how to craft demands, how to develop leaders, how to recruit new members into the organization, how to provide childcare and interpretation, how to compensate staff? The totality of these small, seemingly insignificant, discussions helped to refine and sharpen POWER’s vision and practice as a transformative organization and allowed POWER members and staff to broaden our perspective by engaging with comrades working in very different contexts.

A good example of this comes from POWER’s alliance with the Miami Workers Center. Beginning in 1999, POWER members had a series of monthly conference calls with members of the Miami Worker Center. Because of the regularity of the conversations, the organizations had a deep appreciation for the work of each other, and the members had developed trusting relationships with one another, even though many had never met in person. In May 2000, just after Elián González was returned to his father and his homeland of Cuba,[7] the members decided to discuss this saga. The U.S. corporate media had broadcast nightly programs questioning the wisdom of sending the young man back to what they classified as a socialist dictatorship. On the call, the members of both organizations quickly dismissed that perspective. The corporate media line was ludicrous. The young man belonged with his father. The conversation then switched to the issue of the police. POWER members—who had participated in protests calling for accountability after the 1995 police murder of Aaron Williams, an African American man in San Francisco—condemned the use of the police. Their central concern was that the police have historically played the role of occupying, harassing, and violently repressing low-income people, especially in African American and Latino communities. If that level of police violence was tolerated, even in this instance where we agreed with the outcome, then that level of repression would eventually target our communities. This comment was greeted by an uncharacteristically long silence on the other end of the line. At first, we all thought that our comrades in Miami had lost their phone connection. Then a voice spoke up. One of the members of the Miami Workers Center explained that most of their members were pleased not only by the outcome but also by how the incident was resolved. She continued to explain that the right-wing, expatriate Cuban community had a stranglehold on political and economic power in their city; that more times than they could remember, this part of the Cuban community had disregarded law and decency—often at the expense of low-income African Americans and Latinos from other countries. She reasoned that the reactionary Cubans would have never voluntarily allowed the father and son to reunite, and they were happy to see their city’s ruling elite finally be taken to task. For this reason, they supported the federal government sending in armed officers to rescue Elián González. The rest of the agenda was trashed, and the members had a more than hour-long conversation discussing the different conditions in each community. At the end, all the members said that they were opposed to police violence and to one group using power to subjugate another, but we also all left with a new appreciation for the specificity of local politics. For transformative organizations, strategic alliances can serve to deepen the organization’s practice.

Strategic alliances can also lead to concrete work. After a series of exchanges, shared political education sessions, and joint contingents in larger marches, POWER joined together with eight other community organizations rooted in working-class communities of color in San Francisco in 2007 to found San Francisco Rising. San Francisco Rising is an independent project which allows for member alliances to come together to make endorsements of candidates and propositions in San Francisco elections. Shared work was not necessarily the objective at the beginning of these exchanges. Most of the organizations work on different issues in different communities. We had a long history of supporting one another’s work and marching together at large rallies, but that was on an ad hoc basis. The initial objective that brought us together was to share experiences in an effort to accelerate our learning from those experiences. But over time, the commitment to develop shared work became apparent to all.

Electoral work is traditionally contentious since organizations often enter the electoral arena with divergent goals and objectives, but the experience with San Francisco Rising has been exactly the opposite. The bonds of solidarity seemed to strengthen after each campaign, and the work is having greater and greater impact. In a city where the difference between a winning and losing campaign is around 20,000 votes and where there are close to 35,000 people in working-class African American, Latino, Chinese, Filipino, and Pacific Islander communities who regularly sit out elections, San Francisco Rising has the potential to shift the outcome of key city-wide elections. In its first two electoral campaigns, San Francisco Rising has mobilized upwards of 20,000 voters traditionally ignored by the Democratic Party, and all this work is being done with a high level of political and strategic unity between partners. This has allowed the work to move forward faster and more boldly than we would have ever imagined.


7. Commit to Movement

POWER’s mission is to eliminate poverty and oppression—once and for all. We have been clear since the founding that this is not an objective that POWER will be ever able to achieve alone as a solitary community-based organization. The causes of these problems are global; achieving this outcome will require nothing less than the building of a global social movement willing and capable of confronting capitalism, imperialism, white supremacy, and patriarchy with a commitment to global justice. For this reason, POWER, like other transformative organizations, holds solidarity as a foundational principle of the organization’s work.

Samora Machel once said: “Solidarity is not an act of charity. It is an act of unity between allies fighting on different terrains toward the same objective.”[8] This perfectly captures POWER’s understanding of solidarity, and for us it’s important that Machel’s definition rests on the assumption that both allies have clarity about the objective for which they are struggling, echoing the first component of the transformative organizing model.

Transformative organizations have to be willing and prepared to allocate time, energy, and resources to support the struggles of comrades fighting on different issues and in different places. The preparation to allocate these resources is one of the key aspects of this. Given the frequency of abuses that befall so many communities, it is easy for an organization to expend all its capacity responding to these assaults. This, then, makes it challenging for organizations to act in solidarity even if there is a genuine desire to do so. In our best moments, POWER has incorporated the actions and demonstrations of our allies into our own organizational calendar so that we can mobilize our communities to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with other struggling organizations, even if we didn’t see those actions as contributing directly to the campaigns that we were working on. We also use political education as an opportunity to prepare the groundwork since members and staff are more willing to act in solidarity if they understand the connections between our fights and struggles. These actions often paid unexpected benefits.

In 1999, POWER decided to send two representatives—a staff person and a member—to join the Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization (WTO). We had little idea of what to expect. We thought it would likely be just another demonstration, but we hoped it would provide an opportunity to broaden the experiences of an emerging leader and a young organizer. Little did we know what they would experience on the rainy streets of Seattle. When Emma Harris, a leader who had emerged from the campaign for labor protections for workfare workers, left for Seattle, she had attended many of POWER’s demonstrations but was unsettled whenever the police would instruct us to cease our non-violent protests. She came back from the WTO protests a changed person. She spoke about the power of the people turning back the police. She became a voice calling for cross-sectoral unity after seeing indigenous communities leading trade unionists who formed alliances with environmentalists and direct action activists. Back in San Francisco to this day, Ms. Harris insists on escalating the militancy of our tactics since, as she says, “We’ll only win with struggle. We’ve got to keep the pressure on them.”

Although a transformative organization might focus the majority of its energy and activities on one particular issue, it must remain vigilant in looking for opportunities to offer support. Sitting back and waiting for an invitation serves no one. We have to examine the situation so that we see where our interests lie. Once in the struggle, the transformative organization follows the leadership of those leading that campaign.

These actions are critical not only because they serve to strengthen the struggles of popular forces, but they also provide an opportunity to forge class consciousness as the participants see allies from different sectors and of different races, ethnicities, national origins, genders, and sexual orientations standing together in the quest for justice and equity.


8. Extract Every Lesson

Rooted in the sober assessment that for the foreseeable future our opposition will be able to outspend us, the transformative organizing model rests firmly in the belief that in order to be successful popular forces must be more cunning, more efficient, and more strategic with the resources we do have. As Willie Baptist, a transformative organizer of homeless and low-income people, points out, “Nowhere in world history can anyone find where a dumb force rose up and defeated a smart force.”[9]

As previously mentioned, the transformative organizing model aims to develop the capacity of members and staff. Political education and leadership development prepares the ground for the development of skilled organizers and committed leaders, but action forges this development.

Organizing generates lots of action—from confronting exploitative bosses and controlling police, to testifying before hostile governmental officials, to meeting with potential allies, to recruiting new members. Every one of these experiences has dual product—the outcome of the action itself and a more experienced activists who has access to the lessons of what went well and what might be improved in the future. Left unexplored, those lessons go to waste. The individual and the organization lose an opportunity to improve future work.

While there is nothing particularly innovative about the method of evaluation in the transformative organizing model, it is the steadfast commitment to evaluating all our work that is characteristic. Evaluation can take many different forms. Some is individual, some collective. Some is done immediately after an action, and some is done to assess a period of the organization or individual’s work. Some evaluations happen in a quiet space, conducive to reflection, and others happen on the streets after a rousing demonstration. But the point is always the same: to extract all the lessons that might lead to more effective action in the future.

After POWER concluded an action in which we occupied the office of a local bureaucrat, members and staff assembled in a circle on a nearby sidewalk to do a quick evaluation of the action. Everyone took a turn offering perspectives on what the group did well and what we might improve in the future. Later on, organizers would meet with the members who took on particular roles to assess their individual performance. Like brushing one’s teeth, these evaluations are an assumed part of the organization’s work. Then, every six months, the organization does a more comprehensive assessment of the previous period’s work, and every year, members of the staff participate in a process of criticism and self-criticism where individuals assess their own work and receive feedback from comrades. The planning for future actions then draws from past evaluations of similar work.

The transformative organizing model places a heavy emphasis on evaluation because relentless and sober assessment allows the transformative organization to extract all the lessons that our experiences have to teach. Transformative organizations look to develop our skills and ability to make accurate assessments through constant, thorough, and honest reflection so that we never have to rely solely on luck.


9. Personal is Political

Building on the insights of the feminist movement, transformative organizing connects the transformation of society to the transformation of the individual in order to achieve genuine and lasting liberation for all. Transformative organizing aims at nothing less than changing the world. Firmly rooted in an understanding of the interaction between society and the individual, transformative organizing seeks to transform not only the policies, structures, and systems of society but also seeks to shape the transformation of the individual and of our relationships.

Capitalism, poverty, sexual violence, police repression, discrimination, and social exclusion all produce social inequity, and they also scar the individuals who experience and who perpetrate those ills. As the organizer Tómas Garduño points out, “We are living in a period of social disintegration.”[10] Struggling to realize a society based on solidarity, equality, and freedom allows us all to explore and expand the best parts of ourselves. As Ng’ethe Maina reveals, the transformative organization adopts individual and collective practices to promote collective and individual “liberation from suffering.”[11]

Organization is a social form that brings individuals together in order to achieve a collectively identified goal. Those individuals who come to the organization—whether as staff, members, or volunteers—all bring the complexity of their experiences with them, and these experiences can shape, for better and for worse, how that individual views and moves in the world. Like it or not, focusing solely on the structures of social and political oppression and exploitation while ignoring the suffering and trauma that individuals carry with them can be toxic to the attempts to build a strong organization.

From the outset, POWER has seen the challenge of breaking down the alienation that people feel as key to our ability to develop a strong organization of people who believe that they deserve a better future. POWER membership meetings routinely begin with a go-around where participants share their names, how they are doing, and one thing that they’d like to share with the group. Sometimes, people announce upcoming events. Other times they cheer for local sports teams. Eventually, someone will share a problem they are having. A bank is threatening to foreclose on their family’s home. They just got laid off from their job. They were harassed by police while walking home from the store. This brave act of sharing is often done timidly, with shame and isolation hanging from every word. Then someone else in the circle will reach out a hand, sharing that they too are going through a similar challenge. And then someone else. Soon, social alchemy has transformed shame and isolation into outrage and solidarity. This sharing takes time out of organizational meetings, time that could be spent on other business, but our experience is that by opening meetings in this way, we allow people to see through the hypocrisy that would suggest that they alone are to blame for their problems and that they are the only ones facing such problems. Once people develop genuine relationships with each other with a deeper recognition of the systems that perpetuate the proliferation of these problems, then people are more inclined to see themselves and those around them as subjects capable of making change, rather than as objects of life’s cold cruelty.

Organization can also support an individual in her process of transformation. In 2006, POWER opened an unused room in the office to a somatics practioner who meets with members and staff who would like support in addressing the impacts of past trauma. The staff and members who have worked with the practioner are now more consistent and capable in their roles.

The task of the transformative organization cannot be limited to transforming how individuals relate to the economy, to the state and to society. We must also transform how individuals relate to one another and how we all relate to ourselves.



As the reader has likely observed already, the components of the transformative organizing model form an organic system in that each component interacts with and supports the others. While the specific implementation of the nine components may vary from organization to organization, the intentionality around the nine components is essential. The transformative organizing model is not a mix-and-match approach to building power. I’ll share one final story to illustrate this point.

POWER was founded as a multi-racial organization and quickly developed a membership with strong roots in the African American and Latino communities. These racial groupings are often at odds with each other in communities across the United States, but because the founders saw the strategic necessity of uniting various working-class communities of color, the organization was an experiment in multi-racial, working-class unity. In some important ways, this unity was maintained by the slogan “We have more in common than we do that’s different. Divided, we will eventually all be defeated, but united, we can win.”

POWER was able to maintain a level of racial tolerance. There were moments of tension—occasional derogatory comments, disrespectful behavior, and social snubs—and when these events happened, the staff would hold one-on-one meetings with members to explain why this was unacceptable in the organization and why it was counter-productive to our shared work for liberation. All in all, we were able to develop an air of tentative tolerance. Even this was no small achievement given the state of relations between these communities in the outside world, but it was also a far cry from the level of multi-racial solidarity to which we aspired.

Because there was always so much other work to do, we chose not to intervene. That is until the spring of 2004, when tensions began to boil over. African Americans were angry about the interpretation of the meetings in Spanish. Latinas were angry about how some African American members seemed to judge their parenting styles. Everyone felt that the organization’s campaigns were privileging the other racial group. Tensions were high, and some members were openly suggesting that the organization should split into two separate organizations—one for African Americans and one for Latinos.

The staff realized that this had become an organizational priority. We also knew that to truly resolve this issue the members had to be the body to make this decision, rather than the staff issuing a decree. It also seemed that if there were a simple election in this heated environment that the decision might actually lead to the rupturing of the organization on hostile terms such that the organizations might never even partner in the future. In response, the staff proposed a member vote on the issue after a political education process to explore the context of the decision. At the conclusion of that process, the democratic will of the members would decide the matter. The members agreed, and the staff set to work developing the political education process.

The process to contextualize the members’ decision was a ten-week-long process where the organization’s leaders and any other interested members came together once a week. After an introduction to the process and the decision that we would be making at the end, the first session began with small groups where the African Americans and the Latinas each named the biggest problems facing their communities. Then, they named what they saw as the biggest problems in the other racial group. That first session ended with each group reporting back on what they saw as the biggest problems in their communities.

Using a wide variety of pedagogical approaches and materials—from film clips drawn from the tele-documentary Roots to statistical information to member testimonials—the next four sessions examined the history of African Americans in the United States from the trans-Atlantic slave trade to current period. Throughout these first sessions, it was apparent that many of the Latinas were learning this information for the very first time. Living in the racist culture of the United States, many of the Latinas found it difficult to understand the miserable conditions in the African American community. Before this political education, many of the Latinas saw African Americans as just another immigrant community—but one that speaks English and that has its citizenship papers—so they couldn’t understand what the problem could be, other than what they hear everyday through the political hegemony of the United States: that African Americans are the cause of their own problems.

Next, the sessions turned to examine the history of U.S. intervention in Latin America—from the first New World colonies to the 19th century westward expansion to the military and economic assaults on the people of Mexico and Central America. We then looked at the impact that these attacks had on the push-and-pull factors influencing various waves of immigration to the United States. As we focused our attention on the history of the United States’ brutal role in undermining the Sandinista movement, many of the African American members made instantaneous breaks from the ahistorical and hypocritical discourse on immigration in the United States. All of a sudden, many of the African American members saw their own experience as tied together with the immigrant experience.

The final session began with a review of the problems that each of the racial groups had named at the beginning of the process. Then, we discussed what struck them in looking at those lists. It was an amazing moment. In their own words, people talked about the destructive impacts of white supremacy and colonialism. They talked about the ways in which people of color have been subjugated, terrorized, and de-humanized throughout the history of this country that speaks of itself as a bastion of freedom and democracy. They talked about the fact that the listed problems grew out of capitalism and that while the conditions in our communities may look different, they are all the rotten fruit of imperialist domination. We then posed the question that had launched this process: should POWER remain a multi-racial organization or should it split into separate organizations?

At various points in the process, members came to different staff members to ask how this decision was going to be made. Many couldn’t believe that the staff, the director, and a co-founder would allow a group of low-income people to sever something that had taken years to build. We all responded with one simple point: “This is your organization, so this is your decision. We trust that you’ll do what you consider to be in the best interests of you, your community, and the working class as a whole.” Members left these one-on-one meetings more committed to engaging the sessions and the process. When it came time to make the decision, the discussion made it clear that the organization was likely to remain one multi-racial organization, but it was so one-sided that the staff made an impromptu decision to argue the other side—in favor of splitting into two racially-specific organizations—if only to ensure that the view had a fair hearing. The members quickly argued this position down and then went on to vote unanimously to remain a multi-racial organization. Through the process, POWER members came to see more the white supremacist roots of the United State, and they saw their organization as a vital instrument in building a new and liberatory future.

There were so many lessons from this experience—including that the staff had not engaged in explicitly political conversations about the nature of our work out of fear of alienating some members. This experience showed us that working-class people are hungry for challenging and complex conversations, but it also showed us how each of the components of the transformative organizing model—from member democracy to leadership development to evaluation and minimizing egoism in our approach to the work—all depend and build on each other.

Organizing will continue to be a central approach that activists around the globe will employ to address problems from economic inequality to unbridled militarism, from the subjugation of women to the catastrophes of global warming. As more organizers are forced to grapple with the ways that these issues overlap and intersect, approaches to organizing will and must identify practices that allow organizations to go beyond transactional campaigns. Our task is to transform social relations in order to liberate the planet and humanity. This will require the cohesion of the strengths and insights learned on the frontlines of struggles in workplaces and communities around the world. Drawing from the experiences of historical and contemporary social movements, the transformative organizing model demands everything. It sets out audaciously revolutionary objectives because we deserve nothing less.



[1] Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals (Vintage Books Edition, 1989), p. 26.

[2] Eric Norden, “Interview with Saul Alinsky” (Playboy Magazine, 1972;

[3] These are my reflections on my tenure as organizer, Executive Director and Co-Executive Director at POWER (People Organized to Win Employment Rights), a community based, working-class organization in San Francisco, California. While the reflections are mine, the victories, successes and innovations that POWER has accumulated over the years are the shared products of hundreds of people who have served on POWER’s staff, membership, leadership bodies, and Board of Directors. They are too many to mention by name, but I do want to extend special appreciations to Alicia Garza, Jaron Browne, Jason Negrón-Gonzáles, Marisa Franco, Aspen Dominguez, Cindy Wiesner, Ilana Berger, Nora Calderon, Larry Lattimore, Emma Harris, Gloria Esteva, Manuela Esteva, Donají Lona, Juana Tello, Ernest Stokes, Beatriz Herrera, Karen Gibson, Lorren Dangerfield, Jesse Tello, Regina Douglass, Garth Ferguson, Brian Russell, Patty Snitzler, Thabiti Hayes, Khalil Abdul Samad, Jane Martin.

[4] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Continuum Books, 2000), p. 60.

[5] Clearly, not all service provision, case management, or lawyering follows this model, but in San Francisco, where POWER is based, this model was and is dominant.

[6] Paulo Freire (1921–1997) was a Brazilian educator and influential theorist of critical pedagogy. His book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, laid the foundation for much of the current theory and practice of popular education. Myles Horton (1905–1990) was a U.S.-based educator. He was one of the founders of the Highlander Folk School in southern Tennessee. Highlander became famous for its role as a training and strategizing center for the Civil Rights Movement and continues to be an important resource for the social justice movement in the United States.

[7] Elían Gonzalez became the center of a heated controversy in late 1999 and early 2000. In November 1999, González’s mother drowned while attempting to leave Cuba for the United States with the then-five year-old Elián. The mother had left without notifying Elián’s father, Juan Miguel González Quintana, of her intentions to take Elián with her. Rescued off the coast of Florida, the U.S. government placed Elián in the custody of relatives who sought to keep him in the United States against the demands of his father that his son be returned to Cuba. The legal case moved through the high courts where it was eventually ruled that Elián should be returned to his father in Cuba. Many right-wing, expatriate Cubans in Miami rallied, vowing to turn back any attempt by federal authorities to return Elián. After a very public showdown, armed federal agents stormed into his relatives’ home and returned Elián to Cuba in June 2000.

[8] Samora Machel (1933–1986) was a revolutionary leader from Mozambique who led the national liberation struggle against the Portuguese. After independence in 1975, Machel was elected Mozambique’s President until his death when his presidential airplane crashed in the mountainous terrain near the borders of Mozambique, Swaziland, and South Africa.

[9] Willie Baptist, “The Cockroach vs. The Dinosaur.” (Economic Human Rights Education Series, 2000) p. 6.

[10] Interview by the author with Tómas Garduño on October 18, 2012.

[11] Ng’ethe Maina, “Transformative Organizing: Towards Liberation of Self and Society, Part 1” (


Lessons from Amílcar Cabral: Revolutionary Democracy, Class-Consciousness, and Cross-Class Movement Building

By Maria Poblet

As a Left community organizer in the United States, working with oppressed and exploited people in the San Francisco Bay Area of California, I have benefitted greatly from Amílcar Cabral’s work and thought. I am part of a broader growing political tendency that is building a working class base for the Left in urban centers inside the United States, innovating with organizing fights for housing and transportation, immigrant’s rights, and women’s rights, building race-conscious class unity, particularly between oppressed communities of color who are pitted against each other at the bottom of the economy in the US, and have a strong basis for solidarity with working class and poor people throughout the world. Details