You wish that people who want to challenge your work would reach out, send an e-mail, or pick up the phone. I get many such e-mails. The result is often learning for me, for my interlocutor, and for both of us. Zelda Bronstein chose a different path. Since the editors of Dissent chose to publish her interpretation of my work based on two trainings she attended, I’m grateful for the opportunity to clear up her misunderstanding of how I teach organizing, leadership development, and movement building.
Organizing is a form of leadership exercised under conditions of great uncertainty—a challenge to the hands, the head, and the heart. The “hands” must develop new skills to deal with novel conditions. The “head” must strategize resourcefully to compensate for a lack of conventional resources. The “heart” must access—and enable others to access—sources of hope, dignity, and solidarity to counter the fear, isolation, and self-doubt that rob us of the courage to act mindfully, creatively, and proactively.
Organizers identify, recruit, and develop leadership, build community with that leadership, and turn resources of that community into the power to achieve its purposes. The work requires building relationships committed to common interests; translating shared values into sources of motivation to act through narrative; creating structure that facilitates leadership development, collaboration, and coordination; strategizing transformation of resources into the power to achieve goals; and acting to mobilize and deploy social, economic, cultural, and political resources. Organizing is usually conducted as a campaign, a rhythm of change that Stephen Jay Gould calls “time as an arrow,” which requires urgency, focus, and energy.
One key source of “motivation” is values, not intellectual abstractions but emotional commitments based on our affective mapping of our world: what is good for us, what is bad for us, inspiring, depressing, engaging, frightening. As such, emotional information is the foundation of value judgments at the core of decision-making, especially decision making with respect to action. As St. Augustine observed, it is one thing to “know” the good, but quite another to “love the good,” and it is love that motivates action. In fact our experience of the “good” is the source of goals to which we aspire, the “why” of what we do, not simply the “how” of what we do. This is especially so when organizing, as in the civil rights movement, is about reaffirming, or rediscovering, one’s sense of dignity as one joins with others to change the world that robs one of his or her dignity.
One way we learn to access—and to articulate—what philosopher Charles Taylor calls these “moral sources” is through narrative. In fact, psychologist Jerome Bruner argues that narrative is how we learn to exercise agency itself. In a story, a protagonist moving toward a desired goal is confronted with the unexpected, a challenge for which she is not prepared, an event our neural surveillance system translates into an experience of anxiety. This anxiety breaks through the habitual, causing us to pay attention, confront a moment of choice. How we respond to this anxiety depends on whether fear drives us to strike out, retreat, or freeze, or hope inspires us to explore, imagine, and adapt. The outcome of the story creates an experience of satisfaction, joy, loss, or other learning. Our stories then become the principal places we turn for emotional resources to deal with challenge. This is why our faith, cultural, family, community traditions are all articulated through stories.
THE STORY of David and Goliath, for example, teaches us little about how to use a slingshot, but it can teach us a great deal of how a “little guy” can draw on courage for the resourcefulness to defeat the big guy—and the big guy’s arrogance that creates the opening for the little guy.
Public narrative is a leadership story based on Rabbi Hillel’s three questions: If I am not for myself, who will be for me; when I am for myself alone, what am I; and if not now, when? I tell a “story of self” to communicate the values that call me to action. I tell a “story of us” to communicate values shared by those called to action. I tell a “story of now” to communicate the urgent challenge to those values that demands action now. Like a poem, a story moves by evoking the emotional content of a particular moment through which we can grasp insight into the values at stake.
In 2007, when I designed training for the Camp Obamas, our goal was to launch volunteer leadership teams equipped with the commitment, structure, and skills to achieve concrete electoral goals. The starting point was enabling each to draw on his or her own sources of motivation to learn how to motivate for others. This was not in lieu of understanding the “issues” but a source of the ability to engage others in caring about “the issues” or anything else. Bronstein’s complaint that this work is a “therapeutic” substitute for the “real” work of politics is like someone showing up at a mass meeting during the civil rights movement and wondering when all the singing, testimony, and celebration would stop so the “real” political work could begin.
The capacity to mobilize “power on behalf of the common good” is rooted in people’s lived experience: their relationships, their values, the structure they design, the strategy they devise, and the action they take. One of the major ways in which the Left often goes disastrously wrong is to act as if its abstract ideas of how the world ought to be can trump human reality. Movements are movements of people, shaped not only by their heads, but also by their hands…and their hearts.
Marshall Ganz is a lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He worked on the staff of the United Farm Workers for sixteen years before becoming a trainer and organizer for political campaigns, unions and nonprofit groups. He is credited with devising the successful grassroots organizing model and training for Barack Obama’s winning 2007–2008 presidential campaign.