The Power of Relational Action

Last week I wrote about the distinction between private and public relationships. This week as the second in a series on some key concepts in organising, I want to explore how organisers work with people to move them into a public relationship, how such relationships are initiated. Whilst relational meetings or one-to-ones have now become a common part of organising in the States, they are in fact a development of the tradition that was not envisaged by Alinsky.  Rather they developed as organising matured under later leadership such as Fred Ross, Edward Chambers and César Chávez.

Saul_Alinsky by Floyd Brown CC FlickrWhen Alinsky first developed community organising, his analysis was that communities were disorganised and required strengthened institutions such as clubs, unions, churches and schools – as well as the family – to flourish again. By the late 50s and early 60s, he recognised that such mutualism was on the wane and that organisation in community needed a new approach. Today the isolation of most households has become still more marked. The challenge today is not so much overcoming the barriers between communities as re-creating community in the first place. The organisation of communities today is around avoidance and insularity or ‘organised apathy’. For Alinsky, ‘all organising is reorganising’ and hence the disruption of this pattern is part of all organising.

Organisers are network weavers. We are tasked with developing a web of relationships that can stand the test of being publically accountable. This is not about making friends with lots of people (private relationships) but developing robust open and respectful public relationships. To create such a network, people need to know they are held to a higher standard of behaviour than in their immediate circle of family and friends. They will have to negotiate diversity and challenge others to remain accountable and honest. To establish such a sustainable network of trusting and collaborative relationships takes a special set of skills. These organising skills are focused in what has become known as the one-to-one or relational meeting, the basis of democratic organising.

Conversation on Teaching: Deep Learning by Vandy CFT CC FlickrThe One-to-One

A one-to-one is a planned meeting between two individuals in which they establish a personal ‘public’ relationship. Such meetings seldom happen spontaneously and are often pre-arranged in a somewhat formal manner and always in the person’s own space. Whilst the conversation is two-way, nonetheless it is a purposeful and semi-structured dialogue in which the organiser ensures the main protagonist is the other person. Stories form the central spine of one-to-ones as they offer so many insights into the other person’s values and priorities; indeed the organiser will have a stock of powerful illustrations from his or her own life to share as appropriate. During the relational meeting, the organiser does not take any notes but rather focuses on the underlying reality for the other person. Lasting no more than 30-45 minutes, the organiser asks mostly open-ended questions in an attempt to support the other person to achieve the four goals of the interview outlined below.

Four aims

There are in essence four aims for a one-to-one:

  • to uncover self-interests
  • to develop a public relationship
  • to evaluate leadership potential
  • to build the network’s membership


Organisers talk of three kinds of motivation: selfish, self-interested and selflessness. Selfish network members ask ‘what’s in it for me?’ They are focused only on their own needs and desires to the exclusion of others. At the other extreme, the selfless individual is there to serve rather than to act, not to assert themselves in the public sphere. Such folk don’t really know what they care about and will also fade away all too easily. Those who know their self-interest are motivated by passion. They bring both their head and heart to the public sphere. A core self-interest is not simply about what someone wants to get but about who someone is or wants to be.

Conversation on Teaching: Deep Learning by Vandy CFT CC FlickrPublic relationships

Human beings are motivated by relationships. ‘People don’t come to a meeting because they saw a flyer. People come to a meeting because someone they know invited them.’ People join the network and stay an active member because of the relationships they have formed. The more people whom you know at a personal level the more likely you are to feel responsible for the network’s progress. A relationship gives you permission to engage the other person about their passions which would not be the case for a casual acquaintance. A quantity of one-to-ones gives the accurate impression of a collective of unique people, all with their personal motivations and convictions; such an insight gives the network a more complex but profound understanding of the group’s life. And of course, the issues that people are passionate about become much clearer when you can look beneath the bonnet through personal one-to-ones.

Leadership potential

One-to-ones are time consuming and can be exhausting. Focusing your effort on those from all backgrounds is important. An organiser is looking for those who relate well to others, who have a passion rooted in anger (not mere rage), who will stand for the whole rather than just their own cause or group. The organiser wants people who have potential to contribute to the network, who have knowledge that is important or a position that is somehow important to your campaign. Are they going to be reliable? Will they disrupt meetings? Do they bring a strand of diversity of opinion, background or experience that will enhance the network? These are all judgements that organisers make on a daily basis whether consciously or not and the one-to-one is a great place to challenge your own preconceptions.

My Listening Ears by niclindh CC FlickrNetwork membership

The one-to-one often happens early in the person’s organising journey. Throughout the interview, the organiser is assessing what role this person might play in the immediate future. The roles in organising networks are very varied but when concluding a one-to-one, an organiser wants to ensure that they have asked a commitment of the person, small or large. It may be simply to join a group preparing a mailing or to begin listening to their friends with someone else. The essential factor is that the person is able through fulfilling on their commitment to begin to get comfortable in the company of network members. It’s through participation that new ‘volunteers’ become embedded in the network and valued as contributors. They can test whether they are comfortable with the culture of the network and want to develop their role over time.

Learning the Ropes

When an organiser completes a one-to-one, their work is only beginning. Many use a simple stick man diagram to record the basic information about the person that they have listened to. This keeps on one side of the figure notes about what made this person in the past and one the other side notes about what this person is today. This visual record helps the organiser to retain the wealth of detailed information they have been entrusted with even when they have done hundreds of such interviews. After the intense listening of a one-to-one, it is good practice to stop and reflect on the encounter in all aspects. Such reflective practice is core to improving the quality of such interviews. And of course 90% of organising is follow-up and the organiser will be keen to renew contact with the other person soon to ensure they know they are now accountable for their actions (or inaction) to the network.

One-to-ones are such a central part of organising culture that they feature heavily online. Some great resources for learning how they are done in different traditions are listed below. Many of the key practical organising texts devote a chapter or more to the value and practice of one-to-ones. Most people find that they learn the way of a relational meeting by practice and reflection rather than reading too much about it’s purpose and structure. And of course each person will develop a unique style of engagement that reflects their personal approach to one-to-ones. They are the lifeblood of relational organising and developing the skills to pass on the approach is key to ensuring that every member of the network is confident in holding a one-to-one with any other member of the network. As the network becomes more focused on action, so the importance of a regular and constant flow of one-to-ones is seen; it reinforces the power of the network and provides one very distinctive human quality to community organising.


Edward T. Chambers (2009) The Power of Relational Action Acta Publications

Edward T. Chambers (2004) Roots for Radicals – Organizing for Power, Action and Justice Continuum (esp. Chapter 2)

Valdis Krebs and June Holley (2006) Building Smart Communities through Network Weaving pdf Available from

One-on-One with Intro – a YouTube video giving an example of a One-to-One

Community Organizing: The One-on-One Interview – a second training video

The Change Agency Mobilising for Change – Workshop Resources pdf – great practical ‘how to’ section on relational meetings (pp15-18)

Aaron Schutz and Marie G. Sandy (2011) Collective Action for Social Change – An Introduction to Community Organizing (Chapter 10) Palgrave MacMillan

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3 Responses to The Power of Relational Action

  1. Will Perrin says:

    fascinating piece mark

    given that you use online media fluently yourself, how do you see modern tools like email, facebook, local websites etc fitting into the public relationship? Given the role they play in networking people together.

    • Mark Parker says:

      Hi Will – sorry for the delay in replying but I’ve been under the weather for a couple of weeks. You raise an interesting question. I reflect that Facebook – and email to a degree – present as primarily about private realtionships; after all, you are invited to ‘friend’ people. However, Facebook has morphed into something that can be used by public figures (and brands) to present themselves in the guise of private individuals. I think many people are seduced by such conceipts and as a result, conceive of themselves as friends with the rich and famous (until challenged when they would deny it vehemently!). But as you indicate, local websites, email, Twitter and other platforms can also be used to explicitly hold public figures to account. This is not exclusive to online as books and newspapers have also played that role in the C20. Today public relationships are as much online and in print as they are in person and face-to-face. The danger comes when the nature of the relationship is mistaken and people too often shy away from the more confrontational aspects of accountabiilty because they ‘don’t want to hurt their feelings’ or ‘I hate it if they did that to me’. The danger of online abuse of public figures is of course much higher due to our social inhibitions being lowered but I see organised people calling public figures to account for their actions as key to an effective democracy – both on- and off-line.

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