Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Of social arsonists and voters

One of the privileges of working on the recent ballot measure campaign to end California's death sentences was the occasion to meet people who'd labored in those vineyards more years than I've been alive. As I limp toward being an elder myself, I become increasingly grateful for those who have gone before.

One of these elders passed along a copy of a little booklet assembled from the sayings of one of the people who had inspired him -- Axioms for Organizers by Fred Ross Sr., the legendary mentor to Cesar Chavez. A downloadable version is available at the link. The aphoristic contents are full of tips and truths. Here are a few samples that particularly strike me:

An organizer is a leader who does not lead but gets behind the people and pushes.

90% of organizing is follow-up.

Good organizers never give up – they get the opposition to do that.

How can you move others unless you are moved yourself?

An organizer tries to turn each person she meets into a temporary organizer.

Reminding is the essence of organizing.

When you find “live-wires” put them to work immediately. Find something they can do –any little thing –get them started and ready to do more,or you’ll lose them for the cause.

A good organizer is a social arsonist who goes around setting people on fire.

All true and all very much what I've experienced the work of organizing to be about.

I am reminded that organizing purists disdain electoral campaigns precisely because too many of them violate their notion of true organizing. An election is not about setting hopes ablaze or unleashing the untapped potential rabble-rousers inside many of us. Elections are about wide, shallow, time-limited mobilization that harnesses the power implicit, if underutilized, in voting. But people who successfully use the electoral arena to break new ground are building on a foundation of social mobilization that came out of past organizing.

One of my friends and mentors likes to quote another United Farm Workers Union stalwart, the Rev. Jim Drake, on this:

No good organizing is ever lost.

That seems to be true. Times and seasons flow back and forth between periods of deep organizing that changes people and sets them on new trajectories and moments of simply turning out (turning up?) that actualize the potential energy that organizing assembled. We need both.
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