How to Read History like an Organizer, Part One

There are few academic disciplines that can tell us more about making social change than history.  At its best, history is the record of how everyday people have come together in social movements and attempted to make change. The stories of these movements can be inspiring.  They can also be instructive – if you know how to read history like an organizer.

Drawing lessons from the past that serve contemporary activists isn’t intuitive, but it is a skill we can learn and share with others.  Learning to think about history in this way can help us develop stronger, more successful movements and reflect more productively on our work.

What is Organizing?

By organizers, I mean anyone who is trying to mobilize a group of people into a movement that attempts to strategically work for social change.  Organizers, at their best, deeply think about about how social change takes place.  They develop ideas about how to change the world around them and engage other people in refining and implementing those ideas.  Then, they reflect on their successes and failures and try again.  Often, organizers have very clear ideas about their goals (what they want to change specifically), strategies (how they believe they will force change), and tactics (how they implement that strategy). History can be a record of their experiments and provide us with lessons that we can use to shape our own struggles.

Movements need a variety of approaches: we need artists, community builders, teachers, caretakers, cultural workers, and many other roles.  The most successful organizers combine organizing with other skill sets – in fact, it’s nearly impossible to separate organizing from other skills.   However, being able to think about how social change takes place is important to anyone doing social justice work.  Looking at history as organizers is one way to hone that ability.

How Do Organizers Think?

There is no one way to organize.  Primary historical sources from past movements are a great way to learn more about the varied way organizers have conceptualized their work.  By reading manifestos, internal documents, and other materials made by and for organizers, we can become more conversant in the many organizing approaches people have used in the past.  This is one of the best ways to start learning from history.  Here are a few examples of primary sources in which organizers describe their organizing styles and understandings of social change.  I’ve chosen short statements from a wide variety of organizers that will give you a broad survey of approaches.  Personally, I’ve learned from all of these approaches, even the ones that I disagree with.  I hope you feel the same way.

Manifestos and Strategy Descriptions Written by Organizers

Gay Power.  When Do We Want it?  Or Do We? by Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson This statement is very short, but it tells us a lot about how STAR thought about organizing.  Rivera and Johnson make it clear that they think cops are a primary problem for their community and that they believe direct confrontation is a valuable strategy.  They also give voice to the differences between gay and trans communities.

The Combahee River Collective Statement – This statement is one of my favorites. It doesn’t address tactics and strategies directly, but the Combahee River Collective was very clear on how they understood their oppression and their community.

The Black Panther Party Platform and Rules – Another classic manifesto and description of an organizations methods.

A Letter from a Birmingham Jail, by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – Say what you want about nonviolence, but its practitioners tend to be very clear in their theories about how social change takes place.  It is well worth reading some of their thinking.

We Are Power, by John Trudell – Trudell provides a different way to think about power, one that I think is important.

Rules for Radicals, by Saul Alinsky – Alinsky’s approach has gone out of style, in a lot of ways.  He was not concerned with questions of oppression or creating a just organizing culture.  Instead, Alinsky wanted to win campaigns and make incremental change now.  He was very, very good at doing just that.  Alinsky won’t help you address oppression within your organization or address the interpersonal aspects of oppression, but if you want to organize an effective boycott or force your city to take out the trash, he can help you think about yours strategies.

When reading these documents or manifestos from social movements, here are some questions for reflection:

  • How do these organizations define power? How do they understand oppression?
  • Who do they believe has the power to make change?
  • Who is their audience? Who are they trying to work with?  What role do they envision for people who are not a part of their community?
  • What methods do they advocate?
  • How do they engage with ethical questions surrounding organizing? What are their limits?  What laws are they willing to break and why?
  • What ideas about social change expressed here do you agree with? What do you think is wrong?
  • What has changed since these organizers were writing? What might still be useful?
  • What is missing? What could be better?

Other resources for learning about organizing approaches

  • The Movement Action Plan: A Strategic Framework Describing The Eight Stages of Successful Social Movements, by Bill Moyer – Bill Moyer is a social scientist who researches social movements. He has a very systemic way of thinking about organizing that focuses on identifying different organizing approaches and at what times they are useful.  While you may not agree with everything he claims (I don’t), he will certainly help you think about organizing differently.
  • The Politics of Nonviolent Action by Gene Sharp – Gene Sharp is a political scientist who writes about nonviolent movements. His work is useful because he has a clear view of power and provides an encyclopedic survey of nonviolent tactics. Even though his politics are crappy (He has consulted with both the US and Israeli government), I often use his book to get ideas for tactics and to think through strategy.

That’s it for Part One of “How to Read History Like an Organizer.”  In part two, I provide suggestions for learning organizing lessons from secondary history sources (historical accounts written by historians, not the primary sources produced at the time in question).  Happy history and happy organizing!

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