Tuesday, October 23, 2007

How not to organize

A key part of any campaign is to reach out to various organizations and individuals to seek out their support. The act of reaching out should be done respectfully. Each person and organization approached has power - knowledge (including life experience), resources (money, time to volunteer) and others they can influence (family, neighbors, membership) - no matter how disenfranchised the person or small the organization. We all have power.

What I have spelled out is my vision for organizing. One of my favorite questions to ask prospective entry-level organizers is how would they go about working with people different from them (so if the candidate is white how would she work with Vietnamese immigrants, if the candidate is a man, how would he work with a group of homeless women, etc). What I am looking for is candidates acknowledging that the room full of so-called "disenfranchised" people have knowledge and history that needs to be learned. The organizer isn't the only expert, and certainly can stand to learn from those being organized.

The same is true for approaching an organization. You reach out with deference, seeking time to sit down and learn what they have done. I'm not saying someone needs to crawl on his or her knees but some healthy respect is necessary for someone to buy into a campaign.

I came to this from years of organizing. From watching amazing organizers rally the most marginalized folks. From hearing stories.

I got a call yesterday from a young woman who could stand to hear a few stories.

My colleague asked me if I would take a call from someone at a PAC (political action committee) of a failed presidential candidate. In our town he has minions stationed with "newspapers" and other flyers espousing his rhetoric. However, my colleague told me she wanted to talk about foreclosures and since I'm a sucker for anyone who will talk about it with me I figured it wouldn't hurt to take the call.

It hurt. A lot.

She starts to breathlessly tell me about a bill in our state house that I have never heard of. She tells me statistics about foreclosures that I already know. She never asks me what my organization is doing to address the foreclosure crisis in our state. Which is funny.

Funny because I sat in our state house last week for two days waiting and eventually watching the House pass a comprehensive foreclosure prevention bill that will stop mortgage companies from peddling sham mortgage products among other things. Funny because I sat in our state house this past July and watched the Senate pass a similar bill. Funny because I co-manage a foreclosure prevention coalition that is recognized for addressing parts of the foreclosure crisis.

So I tried to get her to stop talking and listen to what we are already doing. At one point she starts talking about the US Congress and I try to explain that we have limited resources and cannot focus on Washington. We trust our national counterparts to do that work so we can focus on our state. She starts to blast me for that. I tell her that this conversation isn't productive and I need to go.

She starts yelling at me, reading aloud from our website accusing me of not representing the "community". I asked her if she was calling from our state. Very defensively she informed me she came from a city 3000 miles away but she's "been paying attention to the issues since" she got here. Three weeks ago. She, clearly, represents the community.

She then demands to know my title and asks if there is someone more reasonable who will talk to her about addressing the issues that are important for "poor people".

"Feel free to find someone here who will talk to you" I tell her. She starts yelling at me again and I actually hung up on her.

I then promptly told everyone in the office about being yelled at the conversation. And no one plans on taking her call.


Heather said...

Ugh. Some people.

Flower Child said...

So what was her "ask"? Isn't that one of the first rules of advocacy work - have an "ask". puh-leeze.

painted maypole said...

odd. i find that yelling at people always wins them over to my way of thinking.

Jami said...

What - exactly - did this toad want? What did she expect to get from you? And just how much research went into making this phone call? Did she not at least find out your name? And ya know, it always makes me want to get on board the bandwagon when someone yells at me over the phone! Sheesh! (Actually, I have a number of stronger words to insert, but I'll keep it family oriented.)

chelle said...

hmm doesn't sounds like she really wants your support ...

Jenn said...

These are the overzealous, undereducated idiots that give real activists a bad name.

I hate them.

Goofball said...

some people deserve hanging up the telephone...i've done that too already.

Thing is that it does leave you furious afterwards still. Grrrr.

Amy Barry said...

Some people really don't want to hear an answer. They just want to someone to vent their frustrations at and refuse to be convinced that anyone might actually be doing constructive work to solve the problem. Nope. They don't want to hear that. They just want to give someone hell.
It always makes me quake with rage for days after getting a call like that. So frustrating and depressing that people have to focus on the negative and not give credit to those of us who are working our butts off to find solutions and fix problems.
On the flip side, there are those great times when people start off angry but by the end of the conversation thank you for staying on top of the issue and working toward solutions. I love thise kind of calls! Hope you get one of those soon to balance out the bad one!

Jen of A2eatwrite said...

Wow. That's all I can say.

Brillig said...

YIKES!!!! Good crap. She sounds like a train wreck. She could DEFINITELY stand to hear some stories! I'm with Jami---just WHAT was she hoping to get from you? Yikes, I say again.