O lekcii

What is Activism and What is Organizing

Learn the difference between “problem” and “issue”

Practice “cutting the issue”

Learn basic steps of campaigning

Setting up the strategies

Addressing Social Issues 

Few thoughts on Activism and Organizing


Organizing usually involves people from both outside and inside the base contending with a concrete social or economic problem. From the outside, it will involve some experienced organizers, and from the inside, it will involve the people whose material conditions are affected by the issue. Organizing has clear long-term objectives aimed at extracting gains for the base from bosses, owners or authorities. Ideally it will also have feedback mechanisms to evaluate the efficacy of the means taken, as regards the results they brought about, and as these relate to long-term objectives. This then provides a self-correcting feedback loop in which participants can evaluate the actions they’ve taken so far to achieve their goal(s), and whether the efforts were worth it or whether they should be changed. Tactics can be gradually escalated toward a constant objective.


Activism can be identified as an activity that sets up short-term actions and statements on a variety of causes and social problems. It moves from one issue to the next, once a sufficient expression of dissent has been voiced. It is based on an abstract opposition in principle rather than an attempt to obtain concrete concessions from the people in power, be they bosses, state officials, landlords, etc.. Activism is usually scattered politically, reactive and unfocused. There are, of course, organizations that fight in relation to these issues in a sustained and meaningful way. The issues are not in question. The point is that activism is often, if not always, futile in addressing social problems.

Activists are usually bonded not by common economic or social interests, but by political or sub-cultural affinities. Activists may substitute themselves (the acting minority, the militants, the politically enlightened) for the real subject of the struggle (renters, workers, the black community), i.e. the base. Even if the membership of activist groups is formally open, they rarely grow because every action they get involved with has a different base. Activism also lacks long-term objectives for each struggle. There is often missing an evaluation of the results as they relate to objectives since the action taken is, itself, the goal.


Organizations have the potential to build lasting fighting entities for the base. They remain as permanent structures for people to fight from, regardless of who the initial members were.

Both organizing and activism involve the participation of outside. However, activists don’t build connections with the base. The main difficulty of the organizing approach, is that it requires interaction with people that they don’t already agree with on larger principles such as economic system or political standpoint. The decision-making process is also messier with a larger base of people coming from different backgrounds. It requires deliberation, unlike in affinity groups where a common position can be taken for granted. It also requires building real trust and connection before people are willing to take action in a way that puts their own jobs or housing on the line. Finally, there is a longer arc to see any results since the objectives are usually more concrete, and more meaningful than just voicing opposition.


Activism is more about performative politics than achieving improvements in people’s lives. Despite activism’s supposed radicalism, activist actions usually have lower stakes than organizing proper. Showing up for a few spectacular actions is less risky than engaging with your boss on the job in a way that can potentially jeopardize your livelihood. Activism is often safer and easier than actual organizing.

Another element of the allure of activism is the spectacular nature of the actions. Stridently voicing opposition to this or that problem therefore gives the impression of having done something to address it. Activism is often more about the activist’s self-perception of righteousness than about confronting social problems collectively.



The campaign is the chain of actions that leads to winning an issue. In selecting an issue to work on, every group has to take into account the fundamental definition of an issue. A neighborhood, a minority group, a group of workers or people who share any common complaint can be a community that wants to get organized. Typically, there are interconnected problems – complaints, irritations, bad situations, oppressions, difficulties, injustices, crises, messes. An issue is a problem that the community can be organized around. Issues are smaller and more specific than problems. They must be Immediate, Specific and Realizable. An organizer ‚cuts‘ an issue – interprets or massages perceptions or manipulates situations until they fit these criteria as closely as possible.  

Immediate in terms of either the benefit folks would get from victory or the harm they would suffer from inaction. “The bulldozers are coming and you’ll be out on the street tomorrow” is far better than “would you like to be part of a community planning process”.

Specific refers to both the problem and its solution. Vacant buildings are a problem. That particular building that we want torn down by the end of the month is an issue.

Realizable (or winnable) Most effective community organizations can point to victories that any sane person would say were far beyond their reach, though. Calculating the odds on winning is an important first step.

“An issue is specific, when you solve it, it makes a real change in some people’s life, and it deeply affects them so for them it is worth fighting for. By solving the issue they can really feel their power – the possibility to create change, and through this to alter the existing power relations. It is easy to understand and solve, it is winnable, and you can feel the support of many other people (it isn’t divisive). It has a clear target, who is responsible for resolving it, and you can foresee the time frame (not too long) in which you can reach a solution.” (in Making Social Changes in Local Communities by ECON)*

The key to this aspect of ‚cutting an issue‚ is calculation. The organizer – volunteer or staff – has to look with a cold, hard balancing of accounts at all the factors on our side and their side of the issue, and determine whether it’s worth starting out on. Some factors to consider include: who is affected by the problem, and can I get to them? How much does the problem hurt them, and how hard are they likely to fight? Are they able to escape easily, or is standing and fighting their only option? What resources are we likely to need and can we get them? On the other side, who benefited from the problem the way things are, and how much? Could they easily give us what we want, or would it cost them, and how much? Who else is peripherally hurt – or helped – by the way things are? How would the solution we seek change this equation? Could we go after something that would help us just as much, but get us more friends? In the end, all we can do is step out and act. The more we’ve tried to peer ahead through planning, the less likely we are to stumble. (Dave Beckwhith)


Real community organizing is an educational process of action and reflection that puts people into the power game as players. Every group should plan. Planning should be a participatory process. A leadership group, with staff participation if there is an organizer on board, should plan out the strategy and steps on an issue. 

Make sure that the issue is defined, the goals for the campaign set, and the target selected. All these three factors are interrelated. Generally, the best plan has one target, a person who could take action to deliver what the group wants. This person needs to be within reach to make a decision – possibly a local target that group can put pressure on in a variety of ways. The more you know about the target, the more you can develop pressure tactics. Collect data – there might already exist large volumes of data that can describe the issue and its effect.

In developing a plan, look to cover the ‚what ifs.‘ There are usually three possible outcomes to any plan. If you’ve invited the mayor to your meeting, either he’ll come or he won’t come or he’ll send somebody else to represent him (a variation on #2, but we’ll call it a third alternative). The planning group needs to talk about what the groups‘ response will be in all three eventualities. If the mayor comes, how will he be welcomed, where will he sit, how many minutes will he be given, will we let him talk first or only in response to our questions, will he stay for the next part of the meeting or should we ask him to leave – all these questions need to be dealt with. If he doesn’t come, when will we know, and is there anything we could/should do to get him to change his mind, like maybe an action at city hall or at the golf course? If they send a representative, who will it be, and do we accept him/her or not? In the same way, there are three possible responses from the mayor to our demands – yes, no or mushy/maybe. If he says yes, can we pin him down to a specific and enforceable commitment, and if he says yes right away, is there any follow-up that we should ask for while he’s in an agreeable mood? If we get an outright no, do we have any recourse, or a fallback position? Can we get the mayor to recommend that somebody else do something instead? Can we lay out our next step, that will try to change his mind? Who will be chairing the meeting at that point, and can we get some mileage out of a no, with booing and hissing and so on, rather than just roll over and play dead? Finally, if the mayor says maybe/mushy, can the chair characterize this as a no, to push the mayor to a clearer yes statement? Can we pin the mayor down on the next step, so we know when the maybe/mushy might be converted to a yes or no? In fact, the planning group needs to talk about the fact that most maybe/mushy answers really mean NO, and they can be prepared to reject this kind of answer. A planning group could review peoples‘ experience with meetings and agreements and talk about just what constitutes a yes or a no. It’s especially important to be prepared with your next step, so that a no or a maybe/mushy doesn’t end the meeting, but rather you can announce that we’ll all be down at council on Tuesday to protest this lack of cooperation, or we’ll be calling for a new state law requiring the city to do this, starting on Monday with a press conference, or whatever. 

Plan to build on the reaction from the other side. Finally, when a meeting is designed to get an agreement from a person, the meeting should be structured to tie that agreement down, tight. Two tried and true techniques for this are the written agreement and the report card. Often, an official or a target can be asked to sign a written agreement that embodies the demands. If they do, you know that their answer is really yes. If they don’t sign, they will usually get much more specific about what they DO mean, and sometimes will sign a revised version so you know what they ARE agreeing to. The other approach is to post a list of demands, with a check-off spot marked YES and another for NO. This gives the chair a technique for concentrating the target on a specific answer that goes beyond „I’ll do my best“. The meeting can be focused around the list of demands very simply with either of these methods.


The main aim of a community organizing campaign is to change the existing power relations. The group has to have a clear picture of how much power they have and how much power their target has, as well as how they can channel that power to grow their organizations capacities and strength in the meantime. Power analysis is a tool to identify who holds the power and therefore who to target during campaign activities in order to win an issue. A power map, done properly, can reveal the relationships and power dynamics and help design a winning strategy for the campaign. Prepare a map of all „stakeholders” – people who are connected to the issue from both sides. Thanks to that the group can see how much power each group or individual has. By seeing it the group can make a decision whether to start a campaign on the issue or not.


Evaluating the success of your effort is a critical part of any organizing campaign. Don’t wait until the end to find out if you were effective. As you carry out your strategy and tactics, assess and evaluate your efforts. One approach is to have the group members answer the following three questions:

  • What’s working, what isn’t?
  • Is our strategy achieving the desired results–are we closer to the goal?
  • Are our tasks (actions) working–are they helping the group gain support?

An evaluation of the strategy and its results may lead a group to conclude that the reason why they have not met their goal is that the strategy was not fully developed. For example, the „target“ of the group’s efforts may not have had the power to make the change the group sought, or perhaps the timing of the campaign was not right; or a group may conclude that the strategy and tactics used were correct but not sufficient in number or frequency.

If your assessment indicates that your strategy is not working, you may need to revise your approach. Re-evaluating and changing tactics is completely acceptable. The bottom line for assessing success is: Did your efforts create the change you wanted? You will want to know what the group might do differently next time. Knowing what worked can help in planning your next organizing campaign. 


Conducted by Veronika Strelcova, senior organizer and mentor affiliated with CKO

BASED ON the brochure Community Organizing: People Power from the Grassroots, By Dave Beckwith, The Needmor Fund and available at  Making Social Changes in Local Communities by ECON