I have been trying over recent weeks to outline some of the key and distinctive concepts of community organising. These introductory posts have offered me the chance to explore organising in ways that are true of all specific traditions such as that of Citizens UK, Gamaliel or ACORN. In my view, these are some of the central definitive characteristics that makes organising a particular contribution to efforts at community transformation. It’s different and so I want to emphasise those aspects that have developed this specific professional approach.
Last week, I explored the way in which organisers help leaders choose the target of their efforts for change. This week, I am looking at the way in which leaders choses which issue to tackle. Following Alinsky’s lead, organisers speak of ‘cutting the issue’ which can make it sound a technical science but often it is as much art as science. As most people realise, in any community there are many concerns, things that residents and others in the area feel strongly about and want to see changed. Amongst all those concerns, the leaders are often tempted to take up the one that more people feel strongest about or the one that they as a leadership group are energised by. ‘Cutting the issue’ allows a clear and systematic approach to turning problems into ‘issues’.
Turning a Problem into an Issue
A good issue has several key characteristics and the organiser’s role is to help the leadership group to discern which of their many problems meets the criteria most closely. Here I am going to explore some of those that are most often mentioned:
- making the ask specific and discrete
- developing an issue with a solution at its heart
- framing the issue for your people
- ensuring you have the power to win
- using the action to build your network
- choosing an issue that’s deeply felt and resonates widely
- seeking a tangible gain to celebrate
Problems or concerns are often expressed in vague and overwhelming terms. An issue is both specific and discrete; it has been defined in terms that make it clear what needs to change, how far and in what direction the change is desired and often who needs to make that change happen. Moving to be more precise helps the leadership group recognise that their ambition is within reasonable bounds and does not threaten them in the way huge concerns can.
Offer the Solution too
Another key part of cutting the issue is to embed within the issue its solution. Ed Chambers in Roots for Radicals says “Go to power with a decision, not for a decision.” Thinking through the answer to your problem in advance means that your proposal is what the discussion centres on rather than allowing power to decide the terms of what is possible. Of course, a good solution is within the power of your target to grant. It has been researched to actually have the impact you desire and you have included in your solution who will be affected and how it will be paid for. A solution may take some time to become clearly defined but its worth the effort to know specifically that what you are proposing is feasible.
Framing is such an important part of cutting an issue that it deserves its own post but let me outline it here. A frame is the context in which we see an issue. For example, a new bus route can be framed as an issue of fairness to different neighbourhoods or to mums with buggies, an environmental solution to curbside pollution or one about enhancing local employment and enterprise. Although the same result is sought in each case, the frame deeply affects who gets involved, who might be able to influence the decision and how it might be implemented. An organiser may be well aware of the intricate financial background to such a decision but will want to help the leadership group think through how to make the issue both clear and persuasive for the organisation’s constituency.
Most leaders seeking to cut the issue want to win. It is often that campaigners get deeply committed to a course of action they do not have the capacity to deliver. When looking for the right issue, the leadership group need to consider what power they hold over their target. It’s no good asking for something substantial when the power you hold (or are perceived to hold) is too small. On the other hand, if the issue is easy to win, there will be no real gain in power in achieving it. So making a careful judgement about how much power you hold in numbers, research, reputation, organisation and resources is critical to which issues will build you power. The organiser is always seeking to stretch the ambition of their leaders so they chose an issue that is just beyond what they think possible – and when they win, their sense of achievement propels them into the next challenge with more power.
A well chosen issue will involve lots of people. Getting people involved in lots of different ways gives a stake in the issue to a wide variety of families in the community. If it’s done right, everyone in the area knows someone who has taken part in some way in making the victory happen. If it is participating on the day, preparing or delivering information about the day or helping with the research beforehand, every pair of hands that feels their contribution was respected will be ready when another opportunity arises. They will also be able to act as ambassadors for the network, bringing more people to membership and along to the next day. If an issue builds the network, it is a great choice for action.
Issues don’t come out of the minds of leaders, still less organisers. They need to be deeply felt issues for community members. Only if people are really committed to the change they want to see happen will they put their full energy behind the fight, commit to controversial tactics and feel triumphant and empowered when they win. I have already covered One-to-Ones as a key tool for leaders to stay close to the concerns of their neighbours. But a good issue is one that does not just resonate with people in your immediate neighbourhood but that can have purchase with a much wider part of your community. Calling for a stop sign to be installed may gain the support of those who use the crossing regularly but framing it as part of a traffic calming campaign will draw in others who see their communities fractured by speed and tarmac.
A tangible change must be the goal. Change that is not in some obvious way visible, measurable and clear can’t be celebrated. It’s vital to have a moment when you know you have won! You also then know how to hold your target to account for implementing the change. ‘Creating a better environment for children’ needs to be made tangible in a fight to ‘turn a vacant site into a playground’. Then you know when and if you got the playground! And you can measure the number of kids who use it each day, proving it is valued by the community. And then you have a reason to celebrate and reward each other with a sense of achievement … and begin to look for the next challenge!
Kim Bobo et al (2001) Organizing for Social Change – Midwest Academy Manual for Activists (Third Edition) Seven Locks Press
Joan Minieri and Paul Getsos (2007) Tools for Radical Democracy – How to Organize for Power in your Community Chardon Press Series Jossey Bass
Aaron Schutz and Marie G. Sandy (2011) Collective Action for Social Change – An Introduction to Community Organizing Palgrave MacMillan