Saturday, October 25, 2008

How to combine

In democratic countries, knowledge of how to combine is the mother of all other forms of knowledge; on its progress depends that of all the others.

–Alexis de Tocqueville

Over the last few weeks I have grown increasingly interested in the community organizing aspects of the Obama campaign's ground game. I have no idea how history will record what has happened in communities all over this country over the last couple of years, but it seems to me that it is as responsible as anything else for the success of the campaign. But like most things that are new and don't involve the rich and powerful, it's happening under the radar of the MSM and pundit class.

Of course, alot of this comes from Obama's history as a community organizer. But relatively speaking, that was only for a short period of his life. The person who has brought the skill and experience to this aspect of the campaign more than anyone else is a man by the name of Marshall Ganz.

Lecturer in Public Policy, entered Harvard College in the fall of 1960. In 1964, a year before graduating, he left to volunteer as a civil rights organizer in Mississippi. In 1965, he joined Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers; over the next 16 years he gained experience in union, community, issue, and political organizing and became Director of Organizing. During the 1980s, he worked with grassroots groups to develop effective organizing programs, designing innovative voter mobilization strategies for local, state, and national electoral campaigns... He teaches, researches, and writes on leadership, organization, and strategy in social movements, civic associations, and politics.

Here's a short video where Ganz ties his previous work to that of the Obama campaign.

When you look at the work of Ganz, you can see it as the backbone that is being played out in the Obama campaign all across the country. In order to understand what a radical shift this is from how campaigns have been organized in the recent past, here's a summary from Andrew Golis.

Field organizing in the Democratic Party for the last 20 years has been built around a marketing model in which the candidate is a product to be sold. First you collect information on a voter by finding out what magazines they subscribe to, what organizations they are a part of, who they've voted for in the past. Then you solicit them for their support with a piece of mail, a knock on the door or a phone call in which your candidate just happens to care most about whatever random issue that person is most likely to care about. If the consumer sounds like they want to buy, they go in the database. Approaching election day, you call (and now email) them to remind them to vote, offer a ride to the polls, and emphasize that your candidate cares about what you believe they care about based on the data you've collected.

It's a charming process that has the three-part effect of losing elections, deadening our civic culture and forcing the progressive movement to rebuild itself from a list of names and preferences every two or four years. And it's got to end.

Luckily, there's a contingent of Democratic operatives and activists (of which I consider myself a semi-absent member) at war with the traditional model. Instead of treating voters like consumers, we believe they should be treated like citizens. It's a radical idea, but it just might work.

The new approach, based on old American traditions of political organizing, emphasizes the importance of engaging voters and bringing them into the campaign. You recruit activists to join your work not based on some narrow unpersonalized targeting but face-to-face meetings that bring a sense of common purpose. When they join your work you ask them to organize their own communities by finding common purpose with others. You help them to build neighborhood committees, host house meetings to recruit new activists, plan outreach that makes sense within their neighborhoods. You give up some control of the message and allow people to speak from the heart instead of from the handed-down Message of the Day.

Yeah, sounds alot like democracy, doesn't it? But is it a pipedream? If the reporting of Zack Exley, Sean Quinn, and Al Giordano is to be believed, it is not only possible, but just might be a major factor in why Obama is likely to win this election.

As I have mentioned in a couple of comments recently, this week I went to Madison, WI to hear Al Giordano talk about how this model might be used to continue to organize people AFTER the election. It was great to have the opportunity to meet Giordano and hear what he has to say. But it was only afterwards that I realized that my big question is really all about how this model might be put to use online in places like the blogs. That hasn't been the focus of much work yet, except that Giordano has incorporated social networking on his blog with the development of what he calls Fieldhands. Its a start.

I personally want to explore the possibilities of community organizing on the blogs rather than just at the local level. As a place to start, I'd offer some of Ganz's work on the importance of leadership and what it means to successful organizing. To understand what he means by leadership, Ganz has this to say,

Developing a leadership rich organization not only requires learning to delegate. It requires a conscious strategy for identifying leader­s (opportunities for leaders to emerge), recruiting leaders (opportunities for lead­ership to be earned), and developing leaders (opportunities for leaders to grow).

Identifying leaders requires looking for them. Who are people with followers? Who brings others to the meetings? Who encourages others to participate? Who attracts others to working with them? Whom do other people tell you to "look for?" [Saul] Alinsky writes about community networks knit together by "native" leaders - people who take the responsibility for helping a com­munity do its work out of their homes, small businesses, neighborhood hangouts, etc...Where would you look for these kinds of leaders around here?

And what is the role of effective leaders in organizing?

So what makes the difference? Why are some groups disorganizations and other groups organizations? It is the quality of the work leaders do within them that makes groups work.

• Leaders turn division into solidarity by building, maintaining, and developing rela­tionships among those who form the organization.

• Leaders turn confusion into understanding by facilitating interpretation of what is going on with the work of the organization.

• Leaders turn passivity into participation by motivation - inspiring people to commit to the action required if the group's goals are to be accomplished.

• Leaders turn reaction into initiative by strategizing - thinking through how the organization can use its resources to achieve its goals.

• Leaders turns inaction into action by mobilizing people to turn their resources into specific actions by means which they can achieve their goals.

• Leaders transforms drift into purpose by accepting responsi­bility for doing the leadership work which must be done if the group is to succeed and challenging others to accept their responsibility as well.

If you'd like to learn more about the teachings of Marshall Ganz on effective community organizing, he has a whole online course featuring both written materials and videos.

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