As the 2008 financial crisis unfolded, tens of millions of Americans were hurting and making meaning of what was happening. It was the first time in my life that suddenly, tens of millions of people were significantly more ready to be organized than in the weeks before. To meet the pressing needs of people in crisis, advance overdue structural reforms, and open up people’s sense of what was possible, we began to organize loads of new people.
Crises expose the inequities and inadequacies of our systems – so they also create moments of incredible opportunity. Everything is up for questioning. All of it is on the table.
Right now, we are in another moment of crisis – and potential insight – because of COVID-19. With the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the globe, more people are open to organizing than at any time in our lives. The gross inequalities and inadequacies of our systems are being seen in a new light by tens of millions of people.
I remember during the 2008 financial crisis, people who had lost homes, jobs, and pensions were suddenly ready for action they had never imagined. With more than 25 million now unemployed, there are a lot of people looking for support, meaning, and action. This is a moment that requires organizing.
But where to start? We should start where people are at. That is the first organizing maxim I and many others were taught. It made total sense – meeting people where they are is a sign of respect, and respect is a foundation of trust.
This video comes from the political education program we built and run in partnership with Harmony Goldberg and the Grassroots Policy Project. A big shoutout to Jenn Carrillo, Billie Kirkton, and Harmony for their work on this.
Mobilizers – who have an important role to play right now – move people who are ready to be moved to action. Organizers build relationships and then move people who didn’t even know they wanted to move to action. It’s an important distinction.
During the financial crisis, people who had no connection to social movements came into organizing through direct service, specific issue campaigns like foreclosure prevention, or needing a place to express anger and simply take it to the banks.
The COVID-19 context is dramatically more far-reaching in terms of loss of life, loss of livelihood, and loss of social connectivity and normalcy. People react to things differently and as a result need different things from organizing – and that will certainly be the case now. Some will cope by moving to action, some by building community, and others by going internal and even shutting down. And therefore, what people are likely to join will vary. The good news is that all of these pathways are valuable, and all can build power.
As has been well exposed over the last couple of months, there are huge gaps in the left’s reach into working class communities. For all the talk of organizing the multi-racial working class, most are untouched by our organizations. It’s a brutal fact that we have to face. And it raises questions about how much time we spend speaking to the converted, engaging left twitter, or absorbing the existing choir.
This is a moment that requires us to do better, and opens the possibility of doing just that. Some organizations will galvanize the already converted and that’s important work, and yet I hope most of us look at how we can connect with way more everyday folks who are currently untouched by organizing.
Starting where people are at will require us to think about the language we use. Most of the country supports what would have seemed a radical agenda. They support universal basic income, rent suspension, debt cancellation, guaranteed health care, and until now unheard of levels of stimulus investment. And yet, most people are not attracted to or are even alienated by the way the left talks about things that are otherwise wildly popular. We can start where people are at by using language that people use vs. language designed to show bonafides to the already converted. This doesn’t mean we don’t move people along an analysis continuum, it just means we do it by talking like we did when we were organizers in the neighborhood.
Tens of millions of people, maybe more, are significantly more ready for organizing than they were just weeks ago. To win the demands needed to sustain people in this period, and to advance big ideas to reorganize our systems for the long haul we will need so many more to join the fight. They are searching to find what they need, we just have to be thoughtful about where and how we engage them.
This blog was originally published at Our Future on April 29, 2020. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: George Goehl is the director of People’s Action, a national grassroots organization fighting for economic, racial, gender, and environmental justice. He is commonly credited with moving the field of community organizing to new levels, increasing emphasis on shaping worldview, building political power, and long-term vision and strategy.