People power requires people. Your group, no matter the size, is the source of your collective power so the group and its members deserve care and attention.
One question I often hear is “how do I find people?” In most situations I am a firm believer in the KISS rule: keep it simple. You can start with the people you know and build from there. Friends, coworkers, family even, can make a good foundation. If you are someone who wants to see change, chances are good that at least some of your friends will also have similar feelings. If you work in disability or social change organizations the same holds true there; if the place you work or volunteer does not promote much advocacy or activism there are likely to be some other folks who want a way to express their frustrations with systems that rarely are created to deal with real people issues in a humane way. Talk about your desire to create change. Ask about what they are interested in changing. Invite them to get involved.
You don’t need tons of people, at least to start. A small committed group can get a LOT done. Margaret Meade famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” More concrete proof is that ADAPT nationally had about 40 members when it first began, and the first bus stopped in Denver – even before there was an ADAPT – was stopped by the gang of 19. I was once part of a group of four who protested and got a bowling alley to provide adaptive equipment and ramps for bowlers in wheelchairs. As we picketed outside the front door with our signs and chants the owner came out and asked in disbelief “is this a protest?” In the end however he met all our demands, and had a better bowling alley for it!
Spread the Word
It helps a lot to keep getting the word out about your actions and other events. Let other groups and individuals know what you are up to so they can get invested and involved. If no one knows what you are doing, when you are meeting, etc. it is a certainty they cannot join you. Try writing brief articles for other organizations’ newsletters; often they are starved for content. Get on their calendars and website resource links. Make your group a Facebook page and keep it updated, have a few of your folks tweet about your issues. Don’t be shy to toot your own horn, it may seem immodest but you are actually advertising your group that way. We have also spent periods of time going to support groups and advocacy meetings, having booths at community fairs and just passing out flyers on downtown street corners. None of these has produced droves of people, but we have collected individual members this way, slowly over time. In my experience that is how it goes, you don’t get hordes of folks all at once, you collect people one by one. Some of the people in your group may really enjoy this kind of thing, and they are the natural ones to do it. It is exciting when someone’s face lights up when they learn about the thing you are involved in, when they learn there is something they can do to address a problem that is bothering them.
Remember; always put a contact name, email and phone number on flyers and other materials your group makes, including demand statements. That way people will know who you are, what you are working for and how to get in touch with you. It may sound obvious, but it’s easy to forget to do this and then people cannot get back in touch with you. You may get some nasty calls, emails, tweets, and comments too, but that just goes with the territory. Don’t worry about negative backlash, it’s really a sign you are making an impact or else why would they bother to contact you?
Let folks know how much their involvement helps and means to the group. There are many ways to do this: helping people out when they need it, telling them when they do a good job, showing your excitement when you see them, even little gifts or certificates once in a while.
Here is another hint: people like food. It doesn’t have to be elaborate. A plate of cookies, some fruit, a pizza, these things just attract folks and make them feel welcome and a part of the group. In addition, it makes the meetings a little more fun. One group we work with, the Personal Attendant Coalition of Texas, PACT, likes to make every meeting a potluck supper. They figure the personal attendants/direct care workers they are trying to organize have busy enough lives and providing supper is a kind of pay back for sharing that much of their time. And, if everyone does a little piece of the work of supper it makes putting on the meal less of a hassle for everyone. Some of the Centers for Independent Living we work with have community dinners from time to time just to show their members, consumers, staff and supporters that they are valued and appreciated.
KEEP THEM INVOLVED
Getting folks involved is one thing, but it is just as important to keep them involved once you have sparked their interest. Here again, letting them know you value their participation is one of the most important ways to keep people involved. At your meetings, actions and other events, you must address their needs. As much as you can try to help with things like: transportation, attendant services, etc. You may not be able to drive them everywhere, but you can make sure you meet in places that are accessible by public transit, and that you give directions. You may not be able to have attendants waiting to assist every need of everyone in the group, but you can be sure to be aware that someone may need your help eating, and you can share a calendar of dates you talked about. You can remind people when they need to come to some event.
The Democracy of the Doers
In ADAPT we operate mostly by a concept we call “democracy of the doers.” The name was coined by fellow organizer Alan Holdsworth and basically it means the folks who come to planning meetings and actions get to decide what the group will do and how they will do it. It’s a simple but profound idea that those that don’t participate don’t get to come in after the plan is made and change things and tell other people what they should be doing. This problem sometimes comes up with groups that work with Centers for Independent Living or other organizations. Someone who is “in charge” in the other group will try and come in and tell your ADAPT group what to do, sometimes with the best of intentions, but it is usually quite disempowering for your group. This is not to say you can’t get advice, but if the folks who are there decide to try doing something a certain way then that is the plan and that is what you will do. Changing direction without group input is “disorganizing” and disempowering to people.
Although ADAPT generally works by consensus, if consensus is taken to the extreme one or two people can stop everything. That is not helpful. I have found a modified version works best. We discuss plans and folks get to air their ideas, concerns, objections and agreements. Listening to everyone is important. This discussion needs to take you to defining your issues and choosing a plan of action; it should point you in the direction you will follow. Voting makes winners and losers, so we avoid voting. If people feel confident that their views have been heard and for the most part the group has tried to incorporate these views, they will usually feel OK with the result even if it isn’t 100% what they want. Someone who is constantly ignored will probably drop out, and since you generally want to include more people don’t just blow that person off completely. Maybe you can do their idea later, or part of their idea can be included in your plan. It’s important to try and link people together. Once they are united in a purpose, different factions, or view points, or types of people can make a stronger strategy. I believe one of ADAPT’s strengths is all the different kinds of people who are involved, and that people who enjoy and respect the unified diversity make the best activists.
Keep It Simple & Moving Along
I wouldn’t encourage you to email out lengthy notes on everything you discussed as emails tend to travel on and on and might end up with someone you don’t want reading all your plans. Bullet points are usually enough to remind most people who came to the meeting. Remember, folks who show up get to decide. People who rarely if ever come don’t need to know all your business.
People want to be involved, they want things to do. They want to feel they are a part of a group, not an audience for your brilliant career or the secret plotting of the gang of four. This is especially true of the kinds of people you want to have involved, people who want to get things done. Folks will feel more invested in the goals and strategies of your group if you plan together what you will be doing. Include their desires and ideas. You may not be able to do everything everyone wants to do at once, but your group can commit to taking on issues in the not too distant future. When we started ADAPT in Austin there were several of us who were mostly interested in getting lifts on the mainline city buses, but other folks wanted access to some local businesses. We agreed to take on an important board meeting of the transit authority first, and then tackle a local restaurant that needed a ramp. Once that was settled we divided up the tasks for the board meeting so everyone had some job to do. Later we did an action at the restaurant.
A common booby trap groups get into is meetings. You have to get together to plan what you want to do, but if you want activist folks to be involved you need to get together to do stuff. DON’T MEET JUST TO MEET, do things. Meetings should be interspersed with actions of one kind or another, otherwise you will lose the doers in your group. They will go to places where things are getting done.
Personal involvement with the people in your group is vital. It should not be something you take to the level of getting bogged down in, but it shows you are concerned about each person. Monitor what people care about and want to work on. Take time to listen to what other people are talking about and dealing with. Over the years I have been repeatedly surprised at the things people DON’T bring up when I asked them what issues they wanted to work on. I am still not sure about the dynamics behind this but it is all too common. We once had a woman who volunteered in our office three days a week; she was trying to get services in the community so she could move out of the nursing home where she was living and we were trying to help her since these services were just being created at that time. For three months of a Texas summer the air conditioning was out at her nursing home but she never mentioned it when she came in to the office. It’s hot in Texas in the summer, and the nursing home was full of folks with various health conditions that were very badly affected by heat. Finally she said something about liking the cool in the office and we were blown away when we realized what had been going on. Needless to say we reported it, and were starting to plan an action but by that time the word was out in other ways and the nursing home was forced to finally solve the problem.
Degrees of Commitment
Different folks will have different levels of involvement at different times. Don’t expect everyone to fall on the sword for your group at any time, but instead be ready to meet them where they are at at that particular time. Some people may come in gung ho others may want to check you out a bit before they get too involved. Things happen during people’s lives such as illness, work demands from a paying job, family responsibilities to parents or grandkids, people fall in love (a curse or a blessing to your group depending on who they get involved with), all kinds of things go on in a lifetime, so be ready.
Organizers will talk about hard core members versus soft core ones – basically they mean the different levels of commitment to the issue and to the group. People with a higher personal investment in the issue tend to feel it more deeply and are more ready to commit more deeply (hard core involvement.) People who are more tangentially involved, through a family member, their job, living in the vicinity, or who have similar ties to the issue or group tend to have a softer core involvement. However, sometimes people who are more directly involved also have more to lose – perhaps as in the case of the volunteer who was living in a nursing home without AC. Fear of retaliation, of losing what little they have and similar issues can make many people back off, while those who are not as directly affected may feel less ambiguously committed. One thing I have learned is jumping to conclusions about where people are at, especially those you do not know well, can lead to losing good folks. So don’t assume, listen.
Tolerance & Focus
Tolerance has been a cornerstone of the organizing successes I have been involved with. In ADAPT and the other groups have worked with, lots of different kinds of folks get involved, and that is great in my view. Everyone doesn’t have to agree on every issue. Single issue organizing, or just a few issues, allows you to bring in many people from diverse backgrounds. I would not necessarily ask most people their feelings on other topics such as: gun control, abortion or religion; I really don’t care what their views are as long as they work with me toward promoting community service options so people are not forced into nursing homes or other institutions. It is not that I don’t care about other issues, because I care a lot about some of them, it’s just that in organizing on certain agreed on issues, those other subjects are a distraction. Another way you can think about this is that there may be things you would disagree about, but you are agreeing to work together on the things you do agree on.
This holds true for interpersonal relations as well. The more you can focus on your issues and NOT on who does what and with whom, the more folks you will attract. Who is sleeping with whom and who is angry at whom can really mess with a group that gets too caught up in that kind of thing. The more you can ignore these the better, and when they can’t be ignored any more there are usually other factors involved that are affecting group relations and then those are the issues to be addressed. If your group agrees personal stuff should not interfere with the group’s goals and tactics you create a boundary most all can live with, and those that can’t probably don’t have the group and its goals in the right priority for community activism. An example of what I am talking about is when two people in our group feel deeply in love? Lust? Who knows who cares. We ignored it until one of them was sharing a room with some other people on a trip but kept locking the others out of the room while they had their trists. This meant the other people didn’t have a place to sleep, so that was the point the group stepped in and said this won’t work. This can be a little bit sensitive when people come from living situations where they don’t have real control of their privacy but with a little sensitivity on everyone’s part things work out.
KEEP FOLKS INFORMED –
People want to know what is going on with the issues you and they are working on. They also communicate in different ways. Over the years it has become apparent to me that the best way to keep folks up to date is to use several methods. Some people pay attention to their email, others like to talk on the phone, some follow Facebook religiously, others still like regular mail. If you cover as many bases as possible, yes it is more work but you will have higher participation.
I never understand why so many people think lists are boring. It is vital to keep at least a list of who comes and their addresses, phone numbers and email addresses. These mailing, email and telephone lists are the lifeblood of your group, how you contact people and keep them up to date. You want to tell everyone who has shown an interest about your general meetings and what your group is up to, not just the folks who hang around the most; remember, different people will have different levels of commitment and involvement. If someone says they are interested but then never shows up, you can eventually dump them from the list, or just categorize them as inactive. I have had people pop back up years after they first made contact.
How elaborate you want to get with your list is up to you. A list is not a substitute for warm bodies. But lists can be very useful tools. You can keep notes with your list. You can keep track of when and where you recruited this person, why they became involved or contacted you, and in this way the list becomes more than just a list. It’s a way to keep track of who is who, what their interests are, etc. On most computer list programs, whether database or spreadsheet or whatever, you can sort them by different categories (depending on how the information is entered) so you can find all the folks who are within 5 blocks of a target, or everyone who works for a certain home health agency or all the customers of that agency, etc. The people are your goal, not the list, but lists help you keep track of folks.
Use your lists to keep people informed of what your group is up to. I am not talking about spreading your secret plans or targets, keep those for those you really trust. But share when and where your general meetings are happening, news about victories the group has recently had, fundraising events and other activities that they might want to be involved with. If I never hear from a group, the easy assumption is that there is nothing going with them. People who do things, who get involved, who take action, can get diverted away from you and into other stuff if nothing is going on, and then it will be harder to woo them back. Also if you are involved in an ongoing campaign you want all involved to know what is happening, next steps or the date of the meeting to plan next steps, etc. By keeping people informed you keep them engaged, and thus ready to kick back in gear if the opposition starts to backtrack or not live up to their commitments. People whose attention is elsewhere are going to be much harder to re-engage than those who are up to date and watching what is going on.
THE IMPORTANCE OF LOCAL ACTIONS —
People who are willing to do things and get involved need things to be involved with. Local actions provide that opportunity. By organizing local actions you give folks something to be part of, something to tell stories about, something for them to focus on and keep their interest. Local actions also get your group’s name out, building the group’s power and reputation. By doing things you get the reputation of doing things, of a group to be taken seriously.
What exactly constitutes a local action depends on the temperament of your group. It can be protests, pickets, rallies, occupations, even civil disobedience. It can be other kinds of activities done with a twist, often a bit of theater. Some examples of these are:
- Testifying at an agency hearing AND throwing “blood stained” money at the transit officials in charge of the meeting while yelling “inaccessible bus stops mean we wait in the street and get hit by cars!”
- Attending a hearing on budget cuts wearing raincoats and boots and opening umbrellas and chanting use the “rainy day fund” (a Texas nickname for the emergency funds they did not want to spend for community services).
- Marching slowing around an intersection in the crosswalks, too slow for the crossing lights, so we soon were out of sync and messing up traffic to demonstrate how lack of curb cuts stuck us in traffic.
- Visiting a big wig bureaucrat without an appointment and ordering cheesy pizza delivered while you wait in their fancy office waiting area.
In ADAPT’s world actions are confrontation with authorities who don’t want to give you what you want. Other kinds of events like workshops or town hall meetings can serve many of these goals too. However, if you want to attract people who like actions, you want to do actions. And actions move the ball forward.
DON’T LET STRUCTURE TAKE OVER —
In your organizing you want to let issues and involvements lead your way. Sometimes when people get organized they get so into the structure of what they are doing, they ignore the substance. Process (Roberts rules of order, etc.) should not become so cumbersome it bogs your group down. Keep it simple, clean and to the point — which is getting things done. Process can get like Kudzu where it’s gangly tentacles pull everything in and smother the group. Whack it back. Keep your eye on the prize and keep moving forward.
Stay away from honchos, titles, elections and the like. These kinds of things have a way of stirring up jealousy and similar distractions, and like as not the people who get the titles (after a relatively short time even) wind up being people who care more about titles and positions than about what you were originally starting to accomplish.
A suggestion to groups, especially new groups, is not to get incorporated or have membership dues or presidents and secretaries and all that. Focus your energies on how you are going to achieve your missions, tackle the issues that people care about most, and grow your group. If later you need to create some structure you will have a reason, and a strong foundation of letting the issues and the doers drive the organization.
A way to share leadership responsibilities and to empower more members of your group is by using Leadership TEAMS. Pick three to five folks (depending on the size of your group) to lead the effort. They share the responsibilities, share ideas, spread out through the group and not get isolated in negotiations with the enemy, the police or whomever. Change the leadership team’s make up from time to time to allows different people a shot at leadership. Mix newer people with older people as a way to mentor new leadership without throwing an inexperience person in over his or her head, and also not forcing the group to follow someone who doesn’t know what she or he is doing. This allows different factions of the group to have a voice in decision making and generally spread the work and the glory around.
FUN — FUN — FUN — MAKE IT FUN —
Life is full of downers. Don’t add to the pile. By making your events, actions, and involvement fun you can offer something better that will attract other folks and keep you energizes up at the same time. What constitutes fun depends on your folks. Planning things together lets all kinds of new ideas come into the mix, some will be pie in the sky but others will be terrific. No need to put the less usable ones down, just focus on the ones that are attractive and achievable – like in any brainstorming session. Don’t take yourselves too seriously in the meetings either. Your issues are serious, but you don’t have to be too somber. Planning in this way can be fun and then try and make the steps of achieving your plan fun too. If you need to make signs for a protest have a pizza party and make them together; folks who may not have the clearest handwriting can do one or two (this is not about perfection) and help come up with slogans for the neatniks with very legible handwriting (you do want your messages read!) Go to the dollar or thrift store with a couple of people and look for some cheap props you can use. A meeting about closing down an integrated (kids with and without disabilities) day care became a lot more lively once we found a couple of plastic baby dolls to toss around the room and led to the bureaucrats discussed what closing the day care would do for real kids (instead of just talking dollars, as they had originally planned to do.)
Another vital part of this aspect of organizing is to celebrate your victories! Even the small ones. Marking good things that happen emphasizes them, and makes them stand out. It makes them memorable. And you want to remember the things you get done. There is always more to do, but you can – rather quickly in many cases – start racking up some successes. And success breeds success. When you feel you are getting some things done you have more energy to move forward. By celebrating, you not only have a good time during the celebration, you make it easier to remember and share with other people who might want to be part of your next effort.
ASK YOURSELF …
As you brainstorm about how to get and keep people involved ask yourself questions like: What groups do we like being a part of? Why? Which have been bad experiences? Why? The answers can lead you to places to look for people, ways to attract them, and rewards for all of us for pitching in together to get things done.
Your network is your lifeblood so treat it well. Cultivate it and let the folks who make up the network know how much you appreciate each other and all of your commitments and efforts.
SOME ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS FOR ADAPT GROUPS
USE NATIONAL ACTIONS TO RECRUIT —
Not every group has a national network to hook up with, but some do. ADAPT is of course one of those. Twice a year as many of us as possible get together to work on our national issues and protest injustice. These national actions (as ADAPT calls them) are expensive, but really fire folks up! They allow people around the country to see their friends (made on the lines of past national actions while blocking a door or occupying an office or whatever) from other places. They are a prime opportunity to share ideas, issues and strategies. They give us the ability to address bigger issues, or bigger parts of the issues we are tackling. They give us ideas to bring back home, as well as amazing stories of what we did while away. Most of all they allow us to recharge each other’s commitment and batteries, and show new people even more of what is possible when you use people power in a focused and organized way.
The first time I went to a national ADAPT action I was thinking it was the weirdest sounding thing I had ever heard of. But two of my best friends kept telling me I would love it. As I arrived, I met some of the most committed individuals I had ever encountered. Everyone was looking out for each other. They started telling me things that sounded a bit far out and radical but they also made sense. We went into a big meeting and lots of people talked and shared ideas. I didn’t agree with everything I heard, but I learned a lot – some of which I even knew but didn’t realize I knew. Slowly a plan formed. As the conversation went on I notice dinner dishes in the sink, I didn’t think I had much to offer the discussion, I felt pretty new and green, but I knew how to do dishes, and that would free up other people for other tasks. Later I helped make signs. That was the way the group worked, look for what would be useful to do and do it! By the end of that first action I was hooked.
IF YOU ARE BIG, OR AT LEAST SPREAD OUT, OR YOU ARE LITTLE WITH OTHER GROUPS NOT TOO FAR AWAY — REGIONALIZING IS A WAY TO EXPAND YOUR POWER BASE.
Look for ways to bring more people in to help address your issues. We can’t always all go to a national location for every issue. It’s just too expensive in dollars, time and energy. However, we can look on a regional level for allies and supporters, as well as for targets. This is especially true for bigger issues. National ADAPT sometimes does national actions with everyone doing the same thing locally at the same time with the same demand: going to the Governor’s office in their state, or occupying their local housing authority office to send a message to HUD in Washington DC. You can do that too within your state, county, parish or whatever.
Government is not the only thing you can address in this way. Some private businesses can also be tackled in the same way: taking your members and using all the drive-throughs at a certain fast food chain in a county, or calling in to certain discriminatory office using your TTYs all at one time, or simultaneously paying a house call on all the HMO offices in your state.
Let’s face it, it can be very helpful to support each other. Tying in with other groups, inviting folks from a nearby group in another city or state to join you on really big actions helps boost your numbers. Just remember they will expect and deserve you returning the favor. And if you are working with other groups, for example members of a coalition, be sure they commit to the same goals and don’t start asking for something different.
 Also know as Johnny Crescendo, this disability rights singer has numerous CDs and tapes with songs on a wide variety of disability rights topics. Choices and Rights, Tear Down the Walls, Pride and more. Look for him on Facebook.