Justice We Pursue

Introduction to Community Organizing: Strategies and Tactics

This third installment in our Introduction to Community Organizing series focuses on organizing strategies and tactics. The information here builds on our last post about choosing an issue, so if you haven’t read that post yet, check it out! And then come back!


Once you’ve chosen which issue you want to work on, the next organizing step is to bring together the leaders of your project to strategize about how to accomplish your goals and achieve the changes you want to see. The final product of your brainstorming will be a strategy, a “method of gaining enough power to make a government or corporate official do something in the public’s interest that he or she does not otherwise wish to do” (Midwest Academy Manual, 30). Like a plan, a strategy sets forth the steps necessary to complete a project, but it is specifically based around the relationship of power between you and the official. 

The Midwest Academy suggests a structured process for thinking through how to harness and influence that power relationship as you develop your strategy. The process includes listing goals for the project; resources your organization can put into the project and things you hope to gain; constituents, allies, and opponents involved; the decision-makers who can give you what you want; and tactics you will use to accomplish your goals. 

 

Here’s a handy chart that elaborates on each of those components of a strategy, and can serve as a template for your brainstorming session. 

Everything in your strategy chart will be unique to your project and the context you are working in. However, I’ll elaborate a bit more on tactics here, because there are certain categories of tactics that are fairly common and effective in organizing work. That said, it’s important to make sure that the tactics you are choosing make sense in relation to all of the other parts of your strategy. In other words, “tactics have no meaningful existence outside the strategy of which they are a part. Standing alone, it is impossible to say that a given tactic is right or wrong, good or bad, clever or dumb” (Midwest Academy Manual, 45). 

Any tactic you choose should:

  1. Be focused on the Decision Maker or Secondary Target of the campaign.
  2. Put power behind a specific demand - be direct in asking for what you want.
  3. Meet your goals - it should build support for your organization or group and advance you toward winning on your issue.
  4. Be outside the experience of the target - a tactic that surprises targets will make more of an impact. 
  5. Be within the experience of your own members - your members should be comfortable with the tactic you choose, so that they are willing to participate. 

Read on for some detailed descriptions of a few different types of tactics, adapted from the Midwest Academy Manual:

Petitions

Petitions can be an effective tactic when they demonstrate a large base of support for your issue and generate media coverage. They are most powerful when signed by significant numbers of people who have bearing on the target’s position (for example, constituents of an elected official). On a similar note, timing is key - petitions presented right before an election can have a big impact. Keep the message on the petition itself short and simple, and leave plenty of space for signers so that people’s information will be legible. Collect phone numbers and email addresses and ask signers if they would be willing to volunteer for future actions. 

Letter Writing 

Letter writing is similar to collecting signatures on a petition in that if you gather enough letters, it demonstrates the size of the base of support for your issue. Letters, though, especially handwritten and personalized letters, demonstrate a higher level of commitment on the part of the writer than a signature does. Letter writing is often a good project to ask of congregations. Provide people a sample text that includes the details of your issue, and invite people to rewrite it in their own words. Have the writer include a return address so that the decision maker can send a reply.

Meetings with Public Officials

A face-to-face meeting with your elected official is a great way to promote your issue and ask for their support. These meetings are usually relatively small, with between 15 and 25 people, but you can bring letters or petitions to demonstrate broader support. Decide beforehand who in the group will speak and what they will say; use a mixture of data, stories, and values to explain why you feel the way you do about the issue. Make a specific demand of the official (Will you support this legislation?) but have a fall-back demand as well if they are unable to commit to your first demand.

Educational Meetings and Teach-Ins

An educational event can serve a dual purpose. It can educate supporters and potential supporters about your issue, while also generating publicity and showing strength. A successful educational meeting should include provisions for carrying the ideas forward into specific action. Everyone should leave the meeting with something specific to do.  

Legal Disruptive Tactics

These tactics, such as strikes, picket lines, and withholding rent, differ from the other tactics above in that they are not about symbolically demonstrating power; carrying out these tactics has tangible effects on your targets (for example, creating financial loss). These tactics must be carefully focused on specific targets to be effective. For example, a boycott will be more effective if it is targeted at a product that everyone buys frequently, that is easily identifiable by a brand name, and is non-essential or has competing brands or substitutes; or is targeted at specific local retail businesses. Boycotts are illegal under certain circumstances, so get legal advice before choosing this as a tactic. 

  

JRLC publishes our tactics as action alerts on our website so that supporters know how to get involved. Check them out and take action today!

Angela Butel
JRLC Bonner Fellow 

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