Sunday, January 13, 2008

Educating Citizens About Organizing: Beyond "Just Doing It" (Community Organizing and Urban Education)

[See the whole series here]

On October 6, 2007, the “Beyond Social Service” conference brought an extremely diverse group of approximately seventy Milwaukee residents together to learn about social action. The conference aimed to spread information about organizing more broadly in a city where ignorance about social action is a growing crisis.

Some organizers seem to believe that we don’t need educational separate from our ongoing campaigns for change. All we need, it has been implied, is more and better organizing. The problem is that funding for organizing is extremely limited, as is the visibility of organizing. In my experience organizing, by itself, isn’t necessarily educating that many people who aren’t already participating in it as key leaders. Those who “see” organizing happening, or its results, don’t necessarily really understand what’s happening to make it work. While we can “do” organizing better to overcome this a little, I don’t see the “just more of what we are already doing” response as adequate.

The “Beyond Social Service” effort represented the first time in many years that so many community organizing groups came together to address an educational challenge not directly connected to a specific campaign. For many reasons—limited resources primary among them—unless they are collaborating on a shared action campaign organizing groups in Milwaukee tend to stay in their own “corners.” The groups’ willingness to add this effort to their already crowded calendars indicates the importance they placed in the overall aims of the project

The conference was an initial experiment, embedded within broader concerns about how to help more people understand the potential of organizing for social change. From the beginning, conference organizers discussed the need for other approaches.

The key lesson we learned was that there is a deep hunger for information about how to organize for collective power in Milwaukee. This report seeks to answer questions about how we might adequately serve this hunger.

Summary of Lessons Learned

Organizer Burn-Out
Organizers are already overwhelmed with their duties in their individual organization. It is likely too much to expect them to add yet another “job” on top of the one they already have to support an effort not directly linked to their group’s goals. These challenges limited outreach and participation for the conference. To respond, broader educational efforts like the conference need:
  1. To draw in people outside the already overworked organizer community.
  2. To provide more dedicated funding for those putting in the work making sure this educational work is carried through, in whatever form.
  3. To link educational efforts more closely to the self-interests of existing organizing groups
Other Possibilities for “Rebuilding the Tradition of Organizing” in Milwaukee
The experience of putting on the “Beyond Social Service” conference also pointed towards other ideas for rectifying the ignorance about community organizing that pervades our community.
  1. If They Won’t Come to You, Go to Them
  2. Create an Incubator for New Organizing Groups
  3. Create a Federation of Organizing Groups in a Shared Building to Pool Resources
  4. Develop Coherent Pathways for Leader and Organizer Education
  5. Hold an Organizing Retreat in Milwaukee about “Rebuilding the Tradition”

To read the rest of this report, go here. This report is an abridged version of the one sent to funders and organizers.

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