In the Age of 45, Resources for Becoming the Engaged and Powerful Citizens We Need to Be

So you’ve decided to get more engaged in your community and in politics in general. You’re not alone, of course. That’s happening all over the country.

Maybe you hit the streets in a march, or you’ve gone to a rally. Maybe you follow up the march with a letter writing campaign. All these are great tactics, but where do you go from there?

Fortunately, the web is full of resources, mostly free, for learning what to do next, how to become much more effective as an activist, an organizer, or even just an engaged citizen.

First, some history

Maybe you’d like to start by getting some background, some fundamental and historical reading about activist engagement. You can find a lot of those resources available online: Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, Emmeline Pankhurst’s My Own Story, or Mohandas K. Gandhi’s writings on non-cooperation.

And to get more good historical background, read Congressman John Lewis’s memoir, March, an excellent series of graphic novels that take one inside the U.S. Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

Citizen engagement: Indivisible

Then we can move on to specific how-to resources. Let’s start with the most essential activity in a democracy: For engaging with government and especially with legislators, Indivisible is quickly becoming a classic. Put together by former Congressional staffers in January 2017, it is very specifically about working with Members of Congress at a grassroots level. It is by its own admission a defensive document, all about stalling and fighting in the age of a Republican administration, rather than pushing for new campaigns and movements. But it is an exceptionally valuable look at how Congress can be made to work and what the pressure points are. There are useful outlines of such tactics as going to town halls, meeting with staffers, contacting the media, and flooding a congressional office with phone calls. For updates, their website is https://www.indivisibleguide.com

For more inspiring, detailed, and long-term insights into how people have successfully pushed for progressive policies, Seattle writer Paul Loeb’s books are indispensable. Loeb’s Soul of A Citizen is a detailed look at campaigns that have worked, with lessons on civic engagement and profiles of successful activists. His The Impossible Will Take a Little While is full of essays and stories by and about successful activists and writers from around the world, from Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela through Audre Lorde, Desmond Tutu, John Lewis, and Marian Wright Edelman, to Sherman Alexie and Dan Savage.

Nonviolent direct action

King, Lewis, and many others have of course been committed to nonviolence throughout their lives. Many of the best resources for political and civic engagement are couched in terms of nonviolence. The term “nonviolence” can be a little difficult, as a negative: “All right, we know it’s not violent, but what is it instead?”

For me, nonviolent action brings to any political and civil conflict the traits of strategic thinking, imagination, creativity, compassion, and self-discipline. Much of nonviolent action is built around a simple idea: any government, even the most brutal, requires the cooperation and acquiescence of the governed. And any business that engages in bad practices still requires the participation of customers and workers. Remove that cooperation, acquiescence, and participation, and the opponent becomes powerless.

One of the most successful nonviolent campaigns of the 20th century was the toppling of the Serbian dictator, Slobodan Milošević. A key player in that resistance was a student group, Otpor (“resistance” in Serbian.) Out of Otpor came CANVAS, the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies, which has published CANVAS Core Curriculum, effectively a step-by-step guide to building a social/political movement, available online and in book form. It is clearly organized, graphically effective, and well written. It is full of insights about power, strategy, and effective action. Near the end of the book is an excellent list of actions and tactics. The book is clear: you don’t need to be toppling a dictator to use these ideas; if you are looking to build any campaign, I would start here.

The classic manual for nonviolent action is the Handbook for Nonviolent Campaigns: second edition (updated 2014, available online and in book form), from the War Resisters International (founded 1921). The WRI, and its American affiliate, the War Resisters League (founded by a group of women in 1923) have been at the center of antiwar (and later, antinuclear) campaigns for almost a century, as well as anti-racism campaigns. A number of WRL organizers, including Bayard Rustin, participated in the Journey of Reconciliation in 1947, which is said to have been one inspiration for the later Freedom Rides; others were at the center of the struggles for women’s and LGBTQ rights in the 1960s, 70s, and after. During the 2016 presidential campaign, some video made the rounds on Facebook of freedom riders being severely beaten by Klansmen in 1961. One of the people beaten in that video was Jim Peck, a longtime WRL staffer.

The WRI handbook goes deeply into a number of organizing fundamentals, from group dynamics to working with media. It also has some great essays about the way the world works, as in these discussions of the nature of power and fear. And there are links to other content, as in, say, Guardian columnist George Montbiot’s An Activist’s Guide to Exploiting the Media.

A huge international effort around nonviolent direct action is Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution. Beautiful Trouble is a book, but is also something of a wiki, a toolbox, with continually updated online modules from activists around the world. The modules go into subjects that range from techniques for preventing unjust evictions to legislative theater to the importance of framing and language in social movements. It also has good contact lists from around the world and provides training. The Backbone Campaign from Vashon Island is a partner.

Get training: How to be an effective organizer

Veteran labor and community organizer Marshall Ganz has a great online course on organizing: Organizing: people, power & change. It’s very much worth a look. And here is a book chapter on Leading Change. It’s good.

It’s funny; a lot of the best training in nonviolence and organizing skills is similar to some of the personnel-effectiveness workshops that one can find in any major corporation: learning to think strategically, develop SMART goals, and do active listening. And that’s not a bad thing. You can get create training based on the CANVAS lessons or get training from groups like Beautiful Trouble. Or if you are so engulfed in what is happening today that you feel compelled to reinvent yourself, there are a number of social justice training resource centers and schools. For example, one of the oldest is the Highlander Research and Education Center (85 years) in Newmarket Tennessee. Rosa Parks attended a Highlander workshop several months before her famous resistance and arrest.

Gene Sharp: theory and technique

Several of the books listed above draw some of their material and much of their inspiration from the work of Gene Sharp. Sharp is the pre-eminent historian, theorist, and tactician of nonviolent action. A retired professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, he has written extensively on the subject. His Albert Einstein Institution website includes a great library of free resources. For those who want to geek out on the subject, his three-volume The Politics of Nonviolent Action is a classic. It and similar works have also generated a lot of discussion as to the value and exact nature of nonviolence. This essay by sociologist Kurt Schock goes into what nonviolence is, and perhaps as important, what it is not.

It’s worth noting that both Sharp and CANVAS have been accused of being tools/spies of the US government, most prominently by Wikileaks. Whatever one thinks of the motives and reliability of Wikileaks, it is interesting to see an open letter regarding Sharp and CANVAS, in which 138 international activists and intellectuals, including Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, and Daniel Ellsberg, came strongly to Sharp’s defense. In any case, the value of the content speaks for itself.

We’re seeing new resources appearing regularly. At this writing, the website for the Women’s March continues to be a great source for co-ordinated national actions. And one of my favorite new resources is one with perhaps unintentional value. After the Women’s March, researchers from the University of Connecticut and the University of Denver created a spreadsheet listing every march from across the United States and the world, to get a working total of all participants. But since it includes links to news reports about many of the marches, with interviews with the organizers, it can be a valuable networking tool for getting a sense as to who is doing what around the country, even in the smallest towns.

The classic American organizer: Saul Alinsky

Finally, one can’t discuss resources for political organizing without mentioning Saul Alinsky. Alinsky was a long-time community organizer in Chicago who influenced numerous organizers and politicians across decades, including Hilary Clinton and Barak Obama in their youth. He and others created the Industrial Areas Foundation in 1940. Some accounts suggest that TeaParty organizers learned their loud, confrontational tactics from reading Alinsky.

There has been a lot of controversy about Alinsky’s positions and tactics, and he got an “evil genius” rep in the right-wing, with some notice in the mainstream press. One critique has been that his tactics are often too confrontational. But I think that we have seen in the resources above that confrontation has a place, when it fits within a strategy, the outcome of a well-researched plan.

Alinsky’s two major books are Reveille for Radicals and Rules for Radicals. Both books are available online, Reveille and Rules.

For all of Alinsky’s reputation of being loud and devious, and he could be, I can still remember reading Reveille for Radicals years ago and encountering the decent straightforwardness in his ideas about finding “native, indigenous leadership” in any community. Or approaching an opponent on the basis of “common understanding.” And his insistence on “respect for the dignity of the people.” I’m guessing that if the Tea Party organizers did read him, they skipped over these parts.

Much of Alinsky can seem dated, from another world. But there are rich veins of experience and analysis here that are, indeed, timeless.

I’ll leave you with Rebecca Solnit’s stirring essay, Acts of Hope, and her admonition for any activist, “It’s always too soon to go home.”

Feel free to copy and share this essay. Please credit it and please do not modify it.

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