What is Community Organizing?
Community organizing is a democratic strategy used by social movements, labor unions, under-represented communities, and marginalized groups to gain rights, win collective political power, and create positive change. While there are many different types of online and offline organizing, the main job of an organizer is to create unity (and solidarity), then help their community work together to solve problems and reach shared goals.
Done well, community organizing is one of the most powerful strategies in the world for social change. Throughout history there are many examples of small communities who generated major media awareness, transformed culture, and overcome major, systemic oppression through smart, effective organizing (all with limited money, resources, and social support).
That said, trust us when we say organizing is hard, often thankless work. It can be tremendously rewarding and important, but it's rarely easy. The best, most effective organizers we know are people who genuinely care about the community and mission they're serving, put others first, and are powered by the love and positivity they feel doing the work.
What do Community Organizers do?
The main job responsibilities of a community organizer typically include:
1. Identifying and understanding a vulnerable community, its root problem(s), and how the existing social system has created the problem(s)
2. Developing a shared solution (and narrative) for how the solve the community's problem(s)
3. Creating an action plan to achieve the desired solution by winning collective power - often through the political system
4. Building relationships, bringing people together, and educating them on how they can help carry out the plan
5. Keeping the plan moving forward toward its intended goal through trainings, actions, media relations, regenerative support, building solidarity and coalitions, and other movement strategies
Organizers are people-driven problem-solvers - a rare profile that requires working across events, recruiting, relationship-building, marketing, and healing.
To provide a practical example, let's say we're organizing for GoodHomes, a fictional community group focused on tenants rights and affordable housing. First, we identify a community problem: there are thousands of people who are homeless or live in poverty in our city, insufficient affordable housing, and rents keep rising because of commercial real estate development that only benefits a few wealthy individuals.
By examining the system, we realize there are existing municipal (city) laws that benefit a few dozen real estate developers at the expense of thousands of working-class people. We also discover our city's budget for affordable housing is too low, because it's spending money in other places we don't want. As a smart organizer, we start to build public community support through town halls, rallies, meetups, protests, news editorials, and other actions. By making our collective voice loud enough (re: power), it becomes clear to the city's politicians if they don't change the laws in our favor, we'll vote them out in the next election cycle.
Developing and rallying people around this type of social change cycle is how community organizers operate. It's about putting together all the pieces necessary for social change: vision, skills, incentives, resources, and an action plan.
Also, be mindful of privilege and power dynamics in your own approach. Are you a member of the impacted community, or an "ally" looking to help? How well do you actually know the community and its problems? Would the community agree with your diagnosis? Are you involving them in your solution and giving them a say?
As an organizer, it's very important to be truthful with yourself, and to stay on the lookout for issues with diversity, inclusivity, or elitism in your approach.
What Should My Organizing Strategy Be?
Here are few best practices and tips for getting started as an organizer, connecting with individual people, then organizing and inspiring them to action.
Think About Your Brand
The most powerful social movements work and grow because they become powerful, recognizable brands. Occupy Wall Street. Black Lives Matter. March for Our Lives. #MeToo. Sunrise Movement. If your cause or organization doesn't already have them, come up with a plan for your brand, visual identity, symbols, and key messages. Make sure they're clear, templated, available, and easily shareable.
There's no "right" answer for organizing. Some movements are completely decentralized (no leadership control at the top). Other movements balance central power at the top with distributed, local responsibility and decision-making freedom.
Successful movements establish structure, limits on structure, or "semi-structure" early, and make that a part of their movement identity. Is the group a democracy? Is there a leader or board of directors? Are the leaders elected (and if so, how)? How do decisions get made? Do your best to figure out answers to these questions early.
In our experience, you're most likely to run into problems if (1) you have too much structure slowing decisions and progress, or (2) you have too little structure so no one knows what to do or who's responsible for certain work.
Feminist author and activist Jo Freeman has a famous essay about the difficulty of working in movements with no power hierarchy, "The Tyranny of Structurelessness," which you can read (free) here.
Start with an event
Effective organizing always starts with meeting people in person. This can happen at a dedicated event you host, such as a house party or kickoff meeting, or a community forum, meetup, campus event, or block party. What matters most is that you've identified a problem, invited people impacted by it (or at the very least other people who also care), and clearly articulated the goal of the meeting - even if the goal itself is to have an open dialogue or conversation about the issue.
It's always easiest to start building community from your own relationships - neighbors, classmates, friends - people who trust and believe in you. Invite them first and ask them to share your event and bring friends. With the right message, meeting cadence, and recruiting strategy, you can turn inviting five friends into a 10-20 person event that can serve as your base for follow-on community-building.
Other tactics like putting up flyers, asking to speak at other, related events, and using social media can also help get the word out. Cover all your bases.
Availability will vary from person to person (and also city to city), but in most communities the best time to reach people is Tuesday or Wednesday evening. Sunday and Monday nights can also work for virtual events like a webinar or hangout.
Check your local event calendar(s) to make sure the date and time you pick doesn’t conflict with any big events that might hurt your turnout (other grassroots actions, major speakers, big sports events, etc). Reach out to local organizers you know to make sure there’s no conflicts with other groups’ schedules.
Above all, make sure you have an event signup page for your kickoff meeting to collect RSVPs and keep them informed and involved in your ongoing work. If you're organizing for a positive cause, you're welcome to create a free organizer account on Brightest to list your event(s), grow and activate your supporters, and keep track of members.
Recruitment - and keeping people engaged and coming back - is essential to organizing success.
While it is possible to get a community going online with the right message, platform, and social media skills - in our experience it's much more challenging. Start by building relationships in person, then incorporate digital and social second to spread your message.
Build your event toward action (and an affinity group)
People are complex (and busy), but if you highlight an important problem, make a good impression, and present an attractive solution, you can probably get at least some of them to do something - particularly when there's a healthy sense of group affinity and loyalty toward a shared mission.
What makes a good action? Usually, a good action is either effective or attention-getting. The best actions achieve both.
For example, writing letters to politicians can be quite effective, which can make it a good tactic. But very few movements grow from postcard parties. It's not the type of excitement that gets press attention or attracts activists. By comparison, blocking a street or highway with a banner about your cause is a debatable direct social change tactic, but it's a lot more likely to bring attention to your movement [Note: please consider the consequences and only engage in non-violent direct action at your own risk after considering the consequences. We cannot and are not offering you legal advice, or advocating for one or the other. Both types have their place in movement-building. For a good overview of your rights as an organizer or activist, we suggest reading this overview from the ACLU].
Varshini Prakash of Sunrise Movement during a direct action in support of the Green New Deal.
Managing Movement Energy and Power
The key to organizing effective actions and sustainable movements is to be creative, empathetic, and solution-oriented - and have empathy for what your group needs next. For example, in NYRenews' push to pass the Climate and Community Protection Act (CCPA), a "Green New Deal" for New York state, the campaign combined grassroots lobbying, online advocacy, and public rallies at different times to build awareness and political pressure to pass the bill [Disclaimer: we're a coalition-member]. In advocating for the Green New Deal, Sunrise Movement has similarly tied together grassroots lobbying and non-violent civil disobedience with other support events, trainings, resources, and campaigns.
Some movements meet weekly. Almost all active movements meet monthly to sustain affinity. Many larger movements will also sub-divide into working groups. For example, DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) have several active working groups that are further segmented by city (chapter), identity, affinity, and in some cases by age or student affiliation, like YDSA.
Illustrative DSA Working Groups
Like we've said, dismantling power structures takes time and energy. Sometimes it can be downright exhausting. As a movement leader, part of your responsibility is to keep movement energy and momentum up, while also helping your people rest, recover, and stay safe. The best organizers and affinity groups host parties, go to comedy shows and arts events, and emphasize wellness and self-care to build relationships and manage activism stress.
The Best Organizing Tactics for Creating Real Change
The single best organizing tactics are direct advocacy and direct action. It’s the job of your elected leaders to represent you. That means they want to hear from constituents like you (and your community) about what's important to them. When citizens organize effectively around a particular cause or issue, we are a powerful political force.
Grassroots activists have been at the heart of every social movement in history, from anti-war movements to LGBTQ+, gender, and civil rights. Tweet and comment (@) at your relevant politicians. Write letters. Call their office and leave a voicemail. Make an appointment to show up at their office (and if they won't give you one, show up anyway). Record and livestream as much of your work as you can. Get creative. When it's done well, direct advocacy and action are incredibly powerful tactics.
Also, be sure to understand the power structures you're working to change or reform, how they work, and how power is distributed. The more local you go, the easier it is for organizing to drive real change. Getting a federal law passed or changed is hard - but with a smart organizing strategy you can often have a major impact at the city, county, or state level with fewer people and less resources.
The more you know the laws and your rights (and teach them to others), the more successful you'll be as an organizer.
One of the most effective supporting tactics is canvassing. Canvassing - knocking doors, handing out flyers, tabling, and going out in public places to talk to community-members - is another foundational tactic of grassroots organizing. Pick a neighborhood ("turf") or public area to work like a college campus, community center, or farmer's market, prepare a very short script (example: "Hi, I'm Sasha from GoodHomes - we're fighting to make housing more affordable for working families like yours. Can we count on your support in next month's election on September 6th?"), work in teams of two, be respectful of people's time and private property, and have a clear call to action to deliver in person or leave as a handout.
Canvassing can also be used to help register voters, another step to strengthen your political power and influence.
💡 Tip #1: Never put a canvassing flyer or handout in someone's mailbox - it's against the law in the U.S.
💡 Tip #2: It's always good to double-check but normally you don't need a permit to canvass in public in your local community. You also have the right to enter residential buildings and go door-to-door, but you may be asked to leave depending on how the building is organized. If you're tabling (setting up a table or stand), you likely do need a permit
💡 Tip #3: If you need help coordinating your work, Brightest makes it easy to coordinate canvassing shifts and volunteer signups and share assignments with your supporters
Your Next Steps as an Organizer
We hope this has been informative and helpful. If it has, we'd be grateful if you share it with your network. If you have any feedback on how we can make this guide better, please get in touch.
And remember, you don't need permission to go out and start organizing for progress, you just need a mission and the courage to get started.
Good luck and stay safe.
This guide was inspired by variety of different movements, experiences, and organizers - and we want to extend a sincere "thank you" to all the movement leaders who fought and sacrificed to lay the groundwork for these learnings. A version of this guide was originally presented at the 2019 Organizing 2.0 Conference at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies.