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What Makes a Good Community Organizer?

By Hunter Gray
Important information for community grass roots organization.
Just What Makes a Damn Good Community Organizer?
Based on my Fifty Years of Community Organizing
Hunter Gray [Hunterbear] 12/30/03

I'm an Organizer, a damn good one. I get and keep people together for social justice action. I've been an organizer for virtually half a century -- all over much of what's called the United States. [I've also been, among other things, a fur trapper, forest fire fighter, soldier, prospector, metal [development] miner, minority hiring and training consultant, college/university professor, writer.] But my vocation is organizer. I've done it full time for many years indeed. And then, in conjunction with other jobs, I've always continued to organize, somewhere and somehow. What follows here is my essentially outline conception of the characteristics and qualities of a good and effective organizer who is genuinely on the grassroots job. That can be a union local; a temporary single-issue effort; permanent single-issue; permanent multi-issue; coalition. It can sometimes be a specialized service center -- which itself some way grows out of a community organization. A Movement is a transcendent widespread feeling, visionary, fueled by many local organizational efforts -- and it, in turn, inspires many local efforts. Assembling my scattered notes on the matter a few days ago, I spent some very early morning hours today [I rise about 3:30 am] sketching this out on one of my traditional yellow tablets.

1] The organizer should be at least bright -- alert and sparky. And hopefully, be intelligent in a depthy and lofty sense -- which characterizes most organizers who really stick with it over the long pull.

2] The organizer should be relatively "pure" in the moral sense. But not too pure -- because no one, anywhere, wants a sanctimonious conscience hovering about. Set a good personal example. Do your recreational thing away from the project. Wherever you are, avoid all drugs and go easy on alcohol [if you are even into that sensitivity-dulling stuff.] Remember the old labor adage: "You can't fight booze and the boss at the same time." Always a special target, the organizer has to be aware of the consistent danger of frame-ups.

3] The organizer has to be a person who is thoroughly ethical and honorable. Among other things, this means fiscal honesty [as soon as possible and whenever feasible, a local committee made up of grassroots people should handle the financial end of things]. And it also means avoiding any hint of co-optation by the Adversary. The organizer should always have at least a representative group of the grassroots people present when meeting with the Other Side -- unless local people clearly approve a unilateral approach.

4] Formal academic training in the higher ed sense can certainly be useful to any organizer [or, as far as that goes, for anyone] -- but it isn't absolutely critical. The organizer, among other attributes, should be fully literate [including computer literate], with finely tuned sensitivities, with one hell of a lot of good sense. And almost anyone can do much self-teaching. Race and social class factors are not usually critical for a good organizer. [I'm a Native American who has worked comfortably with Indians of many tribes, Chicanos, Southern and Northern Blacks, Puerto Ricans, low-income Anglos. I've also never pretended to have proletarian origins.] In a word, be sensitive -- but be yourself.

5] The organizer absolutely has to be a person who can communicate clearly and well. Often, this can mean teaching -- without necessarily appearing to do so [many people really don't like a teacher.] And communication, of course, involves one - to - one on a face - to - face basis, e-mail, phone calls, news announcements and press conferences, mass meetings -- and much more indeed. It can also involve an organizer helping people with their own unique individual/family problems. And that can help not only the person but will strengthen the overall effort.

6] The good organizer will have some sort of altruistic ideology: couched as an integrated, cogent set of beliefs embodying goals and tactics. After that, there are several choices:

A] The organizer can be passive; and the grassroots people can be the ones who make the goals and the tactics. Not so hot.

B] The organizer can impose a specific ideology -- including goals and tactics. Not so hot, either.

C] The organizer can convey a general ideological perspective which the grassroots people can take or not take. They are not going to want to feel pushed or hammered into things, but they'll usually take it -- especially if it's sensibly and sensitively "sold". They certainly may want some time -- and should have it -- to think it all over. And, soon enough, together the organizer and the people can develop solid goals and effective tactics. Remember, the organizer brings gifts and ?lan -- and the grassroots provides at least most of the reality.

7] The organizer must have a genuinely powerful and enduring commitment. This has to involve a deep belief -- a very real belief -- in the People and the Cause. The organizer has to be able to recognize potential leaders -- and to involve all of the people. Virtually everyone has something of substantial significance to contribute. The organizer gives ideas -- but it's ultimately up to the people whom the organizer should never manipulate. Bona fide organizing [not service center stuff] is about the hardest work there is. A good organizer is literally wedded to the campaign all the way through.

8] The organizer has to have a healthy but controllable ego -- with a strong sense of destiny.

9] And any really healthy grassroots organizing campaign has to have a Vision -- one that is two dimensional: Over The Mountain Yonder, and the Day - To - Day needs. As I have indicated, a movement which, among other things, is characterized by an idea whose time has come, is a broad-based cause growing out of local community organizational efforts -- in turn inspiring and stimulating new community-based thrusts. To become a bona fide movement, there absolutely has to be the two-dimensional ethos and active life. But the purely local effort has to have the same two dimensional ingredients, whether it's part of a movement or by itself. [Something with vision only can easily wind up a small, in-grown sect; and something that's only day - to -day can become a tired service program. And when an organization has lost its way, factionalism is a sure thing along with the withdrawal of the local people.] A good organizer's role in all of this vision-building is extremely critical -- especially at the outset. But it's also critical all the way through in conjunction with the growing awareness of the grassroots people. The two-dimensional vision -- Over The Mountain and Day -To - Day -- is the shiny idea that makes people part of a crusade and sometimes a truly great one. It all gives meaning to life. And sometimes, if necessary, one will die for it. Each of these two dimensions stimulates and feeds the other. A good and truly effective organizer absolutely has to show this interconnection.

10] An organizer definitely has to be a person with a tough hide -- not deterred by cruel name-calling, physical beatings, or forced out of the game by injuring bullets or other bloody efforts. The organizer has to be a person of physical courage. And an organizer also has to have the courage to take unpopular stands within the developing grassroots effort.

11] And an organizer cannot live materially in the pretentious sense. Solidarity -- and also sacrifice!

Semper Fi -

HUNTER GRAY [HUNTER BEAR] Micmac/St Francis Abenaki/St Regis Mohawk In the mountains of southeastern Idaho

It's critical to always keep fighting -- and to always remember that, if one lives with grace, he/she should be prepared to die with grace.

Copyright 1991 The Akha Heritage Foundation