JUST WHAT MAKES A DAMN GOOD COMMUNITY
ORGANIZER? BASED ON MY 50 YEARS OF COMMUNITY ORGANIZING HUNTER GRAY [HUNTER
Published in the Spring 2004 issue of Independent Politics News
And Published In Oregon Socialist, Winter/Spring 2004
I'm an Organizer, a damn good one. I get and
keep people together for social justice action. I've been an organizer for
virtually half a century -- all over much of what's called the United States.
[I've also been, among other things, a fur trapper, forest fire fighter,
soldier, prospector, metal [development] miner, minority hiring and training
consultant, college/university professor, writer.]
But my vocation is organizer. I've done it
full time for many years indeed. And then, in conjunction with other jobs,
I've always continued to organize, somewhere and somehow.
What follows here is my essentially outline
conception of the characteristics and qualities of a good and effective
organizer who is genuinely on the grassroots job. That can be a union local;
a temporary single-issue effort; permanent single-issue; permanent
multi-issue; coalition. It can sometimes be a specialized service center --
which itself some way grows out of a community organization. A Movement is a
transcendent widespread feeling, visionary, fueled by many local
organizational efforts -- and it, in turn, inspires many local efforts.
Assembling my scattered notes on the matter a
few days ago, I spent some very early morning hours today [I rise about 3:30
am] sketching this out on one of my traditional yellow tablets.
1] The organizer should be at least bright --
alert and sparky. And hopefully, be intelligent in a depthy and lofty sense
-- which characterizes most organizers who really stick with it over the long
2] The organizer should be relatively "pure"
in the moral sense. But not too pure -- because no one, anywhere, wants a
sanctimonious conscience hovering about. Set a good personal example. Do
your recreational thing away from the project. Wherever you are, avoid all
drugs and go easy on alcohol [if you are even into that sensitivity-dulling
stuff.] Remember the old labor adage: "You can't fight booze and the boss at
the same time." Always a special target, the organizer has to be aware of the
consistent danger of frame-ups.
3] The organizer has to be a person who is
thoroughly ethical and honorable. Among other things, this means fiscal
honesty [as soon as possible and whenever feasible, a local committee made up
of grassroots people should handle the financial end of things]. And it also
means avoiding any hint of co-optation by the Adversary. The organizer
should always have at least a representative group of the grassroots people
present when meeting with the Other Side -- unless local people clearly
approve a unilateral approach.
4] Formal academic training in the higher ed
sense can certainly be useful to any organizer [or, as far as that goes, for
anyone] -- but it isn't absolutely critical. The organizer, among other
attributes, should be fully literate [including computer literate], with
finely tuned sensitivities, with one hell of a lot of good sense. And almost
anyone can do much self-teaching.
Race and social class factors are not
usually critical for a good organizer. [I'm a Native American who has worked
comfortably with Indians of many tribes, Chicanos, Southern and Northern
Blacks, Puerto Ricans, low-income Anglos. I've also never pretended to have
In a word, be sensitive -- but be
5] The organizer absolutely has to be a
person who can communicate clearly and well. Often, this can mean teaching --
without necessarily appearing to do so [many people really don't like
And communication, of course, involves one -
to - one on a face - to - face basis, e-mail, phone calls, news announcements
and press conferences, mass meetings -- and much more indeed. It can also
involve an organizer helping people with their own unique
individual/family problems. And that can help not only the person but will
strengthen the overall effort.
6] The good organizer will have some sort of
altruistic ideology: couched as an integrated, cogent set of beliefs
embodying goals and tactics. After that, there are several choices:
A] The organizer can be passive; and
the grassroots people can be the ones who make the goals and the tactics. Not
B] The organizer can impose a
specific ideology -- including goals and tactics. Not so hot, either.
C] The organizer can convey a
general ideological perspective which the grassroots people can take or not
take. They are not going to want to feel pushed or hammered into things,
but they'll usually take it -- especially if it's sensibly and sensitively
"sold". They certainly may want some time -- and should have it -- to think
it all over. And, soon enough, together the organizer and the people can
develop solid goals and effective tactics. Remember, the organizer brings
gifts and élan -- and the grassroots provides at least most of the reality.
7] The organizer must have a genuinely
powerful and enduring commitment. This has to involve a deep belief -- a
very real belief -- in the People and the Cause. The organizer has to be able
to recognize potential leaders -- and to involve all of the people. Virtually
everyone has something of substantial significance to contribute. The
organizer gives ideas -- but it's ultimately up to the people whom the
organizer should never manipulate. Bona fide organizing [not service center
stuff] is about the hardest work there is. A good organizer is literally
wedded to the campaign all the way through.
8] The organizer has to have a healthy but
controllable ego -- with a strong sense of destiny.
9] And any really healthy grassroots
organizing campaign has to have a Vision -- one that is two dimensional: Over
The Mountain Yonder, and the Day - To - Day needs. As I have indicated, a
movement which, among other things, is characterized by an idea whose time
has come, is a broad-based cause growing out of local community organizational
efforts -- in turn inspiring and stimulating new community-based thrusts. To
become a bona fide movement, there absolutely has to be the two-dimensional
ethos and active life. But the purely local effort has to have the same two
dimensional ingredients, whether it's part of a movement or by itself.
[Something with vision only can easily
wind up a small, in-grown sect; and something that's only day - to -day can
become a tired service program. And when an organization has lost its way,
factionalism is a sure thing along with the withdrawal of the local people.]
A good organizer's role in all of this
vision-building is extremely critical -- especially at the outset. But it's
also critical all the way through in conjunction with the growing awareness
of the grassroots people. The two-dimensional vision -- Over The Mountain and
Day - To -Day -- is the shiny idea that makes people part of a crusade and
sometimes a truly great one. It all gives meaning to life. And sometimes, if
necessary, one will die for it. Each of these two dimensions stimulates and
feeds the other. A good and truly effective organizer absolutely has to show
10] An organizer definitely has to be a
person with a tough hide -- not deterred by cruel name-calling, physical
beatings, or forced out of the game by injuring bullets or other bloody
efforts. The organizer has to be a person of physical courage. And an
organizer also has to have the courage to take unpopular stands within the
developing grassroots effort.
11] And an organizer cannot live materially
in the pretentious sense. Solidarity -- and also sacrifice!
Semper Fi -
HUNTER GRAY [HUNTER BEAR] Micmac/St Francis
Abenaki/St Regis Mohawk
It's critical to always keep fighting -- and
to always remember that, if one lives with grace, he/she should be prepared to
die with grace.