Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Community Organizing and Urban Education: Cutting an Issue

[To read the entire series, go here.]

I am currently working on the introductory "lectures" for an online community organizing class I am teaching this Fall. Later on I'll be posting the first draft of the entire course online and will post an introduction on this blog. Below I'm posting the introduction to the "cutting an issue" module (FYI, it repeats some of the content of an earlier post). The complete lecture can be accessed here.

Note that I'm no longer numbering posts in this series, and I'll be reorganizing the "series" page to put posts under more coherent subheadings.

The "text" referred to is "Organizing for Social Change" by Kim Bobo, et. al.

Cutting an Issue”

In the previous module we discussed how to identify a “target” and the importance of analyzing the power structure within which the target resides.

As a reminder, a “target” is “the person or institution that can make the change you want” and a “secondary target” is “a powerful person or institution that can influence the

You need to know who the target is because otherwise you may be pressuring the wrong person or institution. It’s helpful to identify secondary targets, because they represent people and groups that can influencethe decision-maker.


A problem is something that you don’t like about the world or your society, but that is too big and/or too vague to grapple with in any coherent way. “Pollution” and “crime” are “problems.” We don’t like them, but it’s hard to know about what to do about them in general. To use an obsolete term, they are “bummers.” In the words of our text, they are “broad area[s] of concern.” They’re terrible but just thinking about them can be disempowering.

In the terms community organizers use, an issue is a more specific challenge that is separated out from the larger “problem.” An issue, rightly described, always includes the solution to the challenge that is chosen. As our text notes, “an issue is a solution or partial solution to a problem.” For example, an issue that one might “cut” out of the “problem” of crime is police accountability, and the solution that your group might fight for could be installing video cameras in all police cars in the city. An issue you might “cut” out of pollution might be a campaign to stop a new coal-fired plant from being built in your community.

Again, notice that from the perspective of community organizing, you haven’t “cut” an issue until you have also defined how you plan to solve the specific challenge you have chosen. Without an identified solution, your group doesn’t have anything specific to fight for.


To some extent, the criteria for cutting an issue, discussed in detail below, can be counter-intuitive. We are used to thinking about “winning” as the most crucial goal in any battle against oppression. However, community organizers think about campaigns in a fundamentally
different way. To understand organizing you have to understand this different way of thinking.

The key problem for any community organizer is a lack of sufficient POWER. You just don’t
have the money or the people to ensure that the social changes you want are made. So the core goal for all community organizers is generating POWER.

How do you generate power? In this context, you generate power by strengthening your
organization. So the core aim of all organizers is building a stronger organization.

Therefore, you want to pick issues that are likely to BUILD YOUR ORGANIZATION. For example, an issue that you can easily win without really making organization members work and extend themselves probably isn’t an issue you want to get involved in. You want an issue that will force the organization to grow, and organization members to learn to be better actors.

It is important to understand that having a reputation for a strong organization is a
crucial asset for organizing groups. If people perceive your group as strong, YOU MAY NOT NEED TO FIGHT! Groups that might have otherwise done things to harm your community may not because of the threat you may get involved. And organizations may invite you to the table early in the process of developing particular projects because they know you can cause problems for them later if you don’t. Organizations that aren’t respected, that aren’t seen as powerful, don’t get this treatment.

When you try to “cut an issue,” think about how a specific issue will help build your organization, how it will help you build POWER for the LONG TERM instead of just about whether and how to achieve a particular goal. Then and only then will you be thinking like an organizer.


One of the key challenges for “cutting an issue” is how you frame what your issue is to outside audiences which may be sympathetic to different concerns than you or your group is. On page 23, the text gives some examples of framing. For example, if you are an environmentalist and want to have logging stopped in a particular forest, it makes sense to frame your “issue” by emphasizing how you will make sure this won’t eliminate jobs, since forest workers may be a crucial part of your opposition.


Chapter 3 of our textbook, Organizing for Social Change, lays out a series of criteria for what counts as a good issue. They do a nice job of describing these. I focus in on what I think the key issues are, here.

  1. Result in a Real Improvement in People’s Lives

  2. Give People a Sense of Their Own Power

  3. Alter the Relations of Power

  4. Be Worthwhile

  5. Be Winnable

  6. Be Widely Felt

  7. Be Deeply Felt

  8. Be Easy to Understand

  9. Have a Clear Target

  10. Have a Clear Time Frame that Works for You

  11. Be Non-Divisive

  12. Build Leadership

  13. Set Your Organization Up for the Next Campaign

  14. Have a Pocketbook Angle

  15. Raise Money

  16. Be Consistent with Your Values and Vision.

For the rest of this lecture, go here.



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philip said...

I read the entire lecture, then I bought the book.

Thank you!

You might consider crossposting this series at www.educatorroundtable.net.