Who Belongs? EP 1 - Gordon Whitman Breaks Down Community Organizing

September 26, 2018

Download an MP3 of this interview.

In this first episode of Who Belongs?, we talked to Gordon Whitman, who is the deputy director of Faith In Action, formerly known as PICO, which is a national network of faith-based organizations working to build civic leaders to uplift communities through work on a broad set of issues. Gordon recently published a book on organizing, called ‘Stand Up!: How to Get Involved, Speak Out, and Win in a World on Fire’. The book, which is available in both English and Spanish, draws from his 25 years of experience as a community organizer in different parts of the country, as well as from a year abroad in Chile during Pinochet dictatorship, where Gordon says he learned the most important things about organizing.

Learn more about Gordon's book here.

To watch a video of a book talk Gordon gave at UC Berkeley visit this page.

Listen to more episodes of Who Belongs? on this page.

Soundtrack Credits:
Intro song: "Traction" by Chad Crouch
Outro song: "Wide Eyes" by Chad Crouch

 

Interview Transcript:

Marc Abizeid: Hello and welcome to the first episode of Who Belongs? 

Who Belongs? is a new podcast from the Haas Institute for a Fair Inclusive Society at UC Berkeley, where we examine structures that perpetuate inequity, and look at issues related to social inclusion and exclusion through a framework we call othering and belonging. 

My name is Marc Abizeid and I'll be one of the hosts of Who Belongs?

In this first episode, we're going to hear from Gordon Whitman, who is the deputy director of Faith in Action, formerly known as PICO, which is a national network of faith-based organizations working to build civic leaders and uplift communities through work on a broad set of issues.

Gordon recently published a book on organizing called Stand up, How To Get Involved, Speak Out, And Win In A World On Fire. The book, which is available in both English and Spanish, draws from 25 years of experience as a community organizer in different parts of the country, as well as from a year aboard in Chile, during the Pinochet dictatorship, where Gordon says he learned the most important things about organizing. Our conversation follows. 

...

Marc Abizeid: So you've written this very succinct and practical book which is meant to motivate people to become more engaged, become effective organizers, and not to get themselves down over the negative trends that we've witnessed in the country over the last several decades with the corporate takeover of federal and state governments, the weakening of public institutions that are supposed to serve the public interest, the lower salaries for workers, and the widening gap between the pay of a worker and a CEO, and the damage to our environment, of course. And you do this by offering a step by step guide that identifies five sort of elements or conversations that the reader needs to address to become a more effective organizer. And we'll get into detail, into all of those, but before we get into each one of those five conversations, can we just sort of lay out the broader purpose of the book?

Gordon Whitman: Yeah, thanks. 

And you just went through a long litany of what we're facing. So there's no way to sugarcoat the challenges of climate change or migration driven by climate change, racism, and accelerating any quality. And we're in a big pickle, and there's no question that those cycles are reinforcing each other and it's a huge challenge. So the question isn't telling ourselves it's not so bad, but what really leads people to say, I will do something about it." And really dig deep and make a big commitment to be involved in a solution. 

And that's where the telling people what's wrong only takes us so far, it's really hard to motivate people to make change just by saying this is wrong, this is wrong. And in some ways we end up reinforcing the sense that we can't really make change. 

So I really wrote the book for grassroots community leaders, for community organizers, and for really anybody whose frustrated by what they see happening in the world and then show what can be done about it. And I think that works at a couple levels. 

One is that people can know something's wrong and john powell, from Haas says often that, I've heard him say that, "90% of Americans believe there is too much money in our political system." The problem is most people don't think you can do anything about it. So one is just we are so conditioned in this society to be told that you can't fight City Hall, you're on your own, it's a white, male, Western view of the world that says that we're basically on our own, independent, solve your own problems. 

And one of our greatest challenges right now, given what we're facing, is that we only can get out of this mess we're in by working together and we've gotta create a culture and a political culture that really teaches that collective action. And even if you believe something can be done about it, you still might wonder, "what's my own role?" So a big part of the book is motivational, that each one of us has a role to play. I really wrote it hoping it might end up in the self-help section of some book stores. But that sense that not only is change possible, but you have a role to play, even if you've been told your race, your gender, where you live, your education, you job, you really don't have anything to offer. 

And the book is full of a lot of stories that show examples of people throughout history and contemporary who have been able to stand up and make a difference. And it offers sort of that motivation but then a guide on how to do it. 

Marc Abizeid: The book does cover a lot of information, a lot of different issues, it delves into race, white privilege, historical examples of racial caste system in America, and it connects a lot of dots between historical, federal, and state level policies that excluded certain populations from accessing wealth, housing, education, and a lot of things like that. It also looks at organizing during the 60s and before, after World War 1. That led to a lot of victories in the area of workers rights. And then the very aggressive sort of attack that's been mounted, starting in the 1970s by the Right Wing and a few wealthy people and business interests and CEOs, to dismantle all of that as a sort of backlash by creating networks. Networks of media organizations, different institutions, and think tanks, to just bring us back to where we were decades ago. 

And you also talk about the different trade laws that are supported by both parties, which led to the emptying out of factories and sending jobs overseas and a tax on labor unions. And in one part of the book, you talk about how in 1968, 25% of workers had the right to collect a bargaining, whereas just a couple years ago, it was down to just 10%. 

So you paint a grim reality of how to borrow from your title, that this sort of world on fire. And so the book basically shows up how to counter that, it's sort of an antidote to what's been going on for the last few decades through these five different conversations. So if we can get into the first one, is purpose. Preparing emotionally for the fight of your life. 

So can you explain a little about what that means?

Gordon Whitman: Sure. When I was writing the book, one of the things I looked for was where are there moments in American history, in world history, in contemporary examples of people organizing to create change. And really interesting to go back and look at the Memphis Sanitation Strike, which is famous for many reasons, including it was during that period that Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis. And the workers who went on stroke in Memphis in 1968, have been trying for almost a decade to get a union off the ground. Many of them had come back from other places in the country to Memphis, including the leaders of what became the Union, really determined to say, "I need to have a voice and change as possible."

They're National Union said, "You're not ready to go on strike." Two workers were killed in the back of a sanitation truck. And they said, "We don't have a choice, we're gonna go on strike." And they ended up marching under the banner of I Am A Man. And those signs became famous worldwide. And part of that, I think lesson from that, is both the systems of oppression are never just about taking money from people or denying them opportunity, they're always fundamentally about denying peoples humanity. And the struggle to change those systems always involves both the standing up for dignity and changing the rules. 

And that applies to almost any change we're trying to make. That the element of people who are most directly impacted by a problem, standing up and saying, "We're here," whether it's Dreamers saying, "We're undocumented and were unafraid," to create the movement that ked to DACA, LGBT rights, it was led by people coming out and saying, "I'm here and I need to be recognized." 

So that personal willingness to sort of stand up and take risks is the starting place for most social change. So before we get into all the systems and policies and things we're trying to change, the starting place of this is ultimately a personal decision that people make to step into the unknown and the risk of being part of a change process. People's clarity about what they're commitment is and where it comes from is what sustains you when you get pushback. And it's what lets you explain yourself to other people. 

So we're really arguing that the starting place needs to be that personal commitment and reflection on, "Why am I here? What's my purpose?" 

Marc Abizeid: And you illustrate this first purpose conversation by the metaphor, getting a knock on the door at midnight by a stranger. And you say when you answer, if you make the decision to answer the door, you're really helping yourself. It's not really about the person whose knocking on your door. 

Gordon Whitman: Yeah, and as a community organizer, it's amazing to me how many times I will work with somebody who gets involved because they wanna improve their children's school or they wanna make the transportation system in their city better. That might be the reason they come to a meeting, but ultimately, it's often something deeper about, "I wanna leave something behind, I wanna matter, I want my voice to count. I wanna show my children that this is a way to live a good life, by standing up for what you believe in."

So that kind of knock at your door challenge ... and I think it's a challenge for all of us right now given what we're facing. Is can I do more? And how do I understand my own role in change? It's not just about an issue out there, but it starts with the kind of change I wanna see in the world. 

And of course that leads to the second conversation, which is, now I need to explain myself to another person. 

Marc Abizeid: Right. The second conversation being story building, relationships that move people to action. 

Gordon Whitman: Yeah, and it seems simple but really, if you wanna build a social movement, the starting place is one person telling their story to another person and hearing their story. And that's what builds a level of social trust and understanding that makes it possible for people going to battle together. And we have a lot of experience in the network I work for called faith and Action, formerly PICO National Network. Done a lot of research on what happens within organizations. And one of the simple lessons is that if you have a meeting where you start that meeting with 10, 15 minutes of people sharing their stories with each other, it's much more likely that someone will come back to the next meeting. 

So organizations that take the time to intentionally build community and intentionally create space for people to share their stories, you can't stop there, we've got to get into big battles and take on institutions that are shaping our communities and our country. But the belief that if people are seeing and heard by each other, then they're much more capable of acting together. 

Marc Abizeid: And you talk about some of that research in the book about through the different bonds and relationships that you create by sharing stories. That these relationships are the two main reasons why people keep coming back. 

The second one is giving them a prominent role in an organization where they feel valued. I think that the significance of that research shows that there's millions of people, potentially, who can be recruited to your organizations, who can become civic leaders and civically engaged. 

Gordon Whitman: Yeah. And I think one of the mistakes we make, especially in progresses or people trying to create social justice, is that we think we have to find the right people, or we have to tell people how they should see the world and what the problems are. And really in practice, people's judgment or political consciousness, they're engagement gets shaped by their experience. We need to come into organizations that matter to them, that give them a chance to engage in meaningful activity, and that shapes how they see the world. 

So huge believers in small group practice, you look at social movement throughout history, often they're movements that tie people together who are in small societies, chapters, and were able to make decisions in the local community, but also be tied to great into national movement. Anti-slavery movement in the 1830s, major shift in the American anti-slavery society from fairly small number of ... fairly elite advocacy oriented organizations that had ... that were standing against slavery but didn't have a mass movement and weren't try to build a mass movement. And the decision in the 1830s to create a mass movement, they had a moral agenda and it said, "Immediate abolish of slavery." Created societies all across the country really said ... American anti-slavery society basically said, "We wanna create societies in every city, town, and village in America, and force very institution, every elected official to take a clear stand for or against immediate abolish of slavery." 

And that shift in organizational strategy and structure really was what helped provoke the Civil War. And I think when we look back kind of the history of social change interesting his country, it often starts local, starts in small groups that are tied together, and have that moral agenda. And I think we could look at that today in terms of the kind of level of intensity of organizing that's necessary to go up against what we're facing. 

Marc Abizeid: Another way you talk about the second conversation story is about the dominant stories or dominant narratives. And one of the things you do when kind of a more local level, when you're talking amongst each other, the stories you share, they don't always match up with the dominant narrative, in fact, they usually don't. And you give the example, I think, of 1990s in Philadelphia where you had the Mayor Edward Rendell, and he was undertaking an initiative to sort of what he called revitalizing the city by getting tons of investment, through corporations, and infrastructure and things of that nature, which was causing a lot of gentrification, a lot of people being displaced, poverty was rising. That city was being decayed, basically. And people outside the city weren't hearing those stories, they were just hearing, "Look what this Mayor did, he came and he's the savior of the city." 

So what did you guys do as an organizer in Philadelphia to combat that narrative?

Gordon Whitman: Yeah, so part of our challenge was that in order to revitalize the neighbor in the city and get the city to pay attention and invest resources in the places where people lived, we needed to change the story of the city and make the length between it wasn't just good to invest in those neighborhoods, but that the city was not gonna move forward without its neighborhoods. And we were essentially in a fight over what the story of the city was. And I think when we get into the work of social change, one plane we're always involved in is telling a story that's more inclusive and can then shape how resources flow and institutions function. 

And oftentimes, we're up against very powerful forces, they have the ability to shape the narrative. It's the end of the book, it's not just that people get deceived, but if people are under stress and there's alto of anxiety, people look for stories that help them make sense of the world. 

We're trying to create change, we've gotten be able to wrap that up in a story that helps people see how their life fits into a larger movement and how the work we're doing to advance the interest of one group, are really to the benefit of the whole society. And a big part of social change and organizing is making that case that our interest as a community, as a social group that's suppressed, really are tired to the whole interest of the whole society. And it's what happens to us where on the other side, we have very small number of very wealthy interests, corporate interests, wealthy families who've convinced Americans that their interests, which are very narrow, actually are in the interests of the whole society. 

So we've gotta have that battle over narrative. That's why the work that as Haas is so important, because when I started to organize, we would bring the mayor in and say do X, Y, and Z. And that can be effective if you're trying to change public policy. But if you really wanna shift the dynamics of the city and how it approaches development, you've gotta tell a story that really shapes a narrative of how people look at what's right and wrong. 

Marc Abizeid: Yeah, I like the story, and specifically about Philadelphia where you mentioned there were tens of thousands of abandoned cars on the streets, they were burnt out, broken, and people wanted removed, so they just started putting signs on the car saying ... there was mayoral race at that time, wasn't there?

Gordon Whitman: Right. And part of what was happening was that the people in neighborhoods that had been disinvested from by both banks and the city, we're being blamed for the conditions in those neighborhoods. 

So the dominant narrative was .. in fact, I was organizing in a public school with parents, and a teacher once said, "Living in this neighborhood is like abusing your kids." So essentially blaming the people in the communities for the condition of their communities. And abandoned autos were a good example of how to pushback at that because really, if you have an abandoned auto on your block, it's not like you can just take out your broom and clean it up. It's really something that requires some public entity to do something about it. 

And a lot of the system was set up that people were told, "Well just individually call your police district and then wait for them to remove it."  And we said we weren't organized around this collectively and trying to understand how does this system work? And we learned a lot about why there were 200,000 abandoned cars on the streets of Philadelphia. And it had a lot to do with a system that was put in place to benefit the scrap dealers who basically when the price of scrap metal went down, they would just leave the cars in the street. 

So they were a set of interests that were benefiting from having these cars in the streets, the ones that were valuable were taken off, the ones that weren't were left there. But it took organizing to sort of untangle that. And then once we figured out, okay this is a solution, we need a centralized system to remove abandoned autos, we don't need these cars on the streets. We know that's not gonna solve poverty in Philadelphia, but it can become a symbol of what it means to create a city where everyone moves forward together. And then we work to make it an issue in the mayoral election and put these signs on the car that said, "The next mayor will decide how long this car sits on your streets, but you'll decide who the next mayor is."

You know, some of those campaigns began very locally but ultimately we're trying to paint a new picture for what it would be like to create a city that everyone is included in. 

Marc Abizeid: The third conversation is team, finding a home base an a movement for change. This is a conversation that emphasizes small groups over large groups. 

Gordon Whitman: Yeah, and a lot of them, that sort of cultural categories around social change are somebody whose a hero who stands up and saves the world, or saves their community. And there's no question that leadership matters, and part of the point of the book is to challenge people to step forward and take leadership. But it all happens through collective action. 

So part of my goal in writing Stand Up was to create better organizations. So organizations that have chapters or societies or teams where people actually meet face to face, it's a lost art but it's so central to change. You look at President Obama's first campaign in '08. And to some extent, the Sander's campaign last year, two years ago, that belief that ordinary people can engage in politics and that they need spaces in which to meet face to face and do work together. So part of the book is sort of a road map to building organizations and movements that have very good small teams that are connected together and places where people can build trust and really develop their own skills. 

Marc Abizeid: One of the points I think you make is the benefit of a small team versus a large team, working in a small organization versus a large organization, is that people in small organizations and teams, they are valued more than they are in large organizations. 

Gordon Whitman: Well, and ultimately we need large organizations and movements to build enough power to make change. Some of the best large organizations are built off of small groups. So I spend some time talking about very large Evangelical church, Saddle Back in Orange County, that built on hundreds and hundreds of small groups. So people might be in a church that has 20,000 people on a Sunday, but their connection to that institution is through lots and lots of small teams that give them a chance to have a voice, be heard. 

And when you're facilitating a group of people, oftentimes the best thing you can do if you have a room of 100 people, say, "Lets just break up into groups of eight or ten and get to work." And then that gives people a chance to really have a say and have autonomy. And everything we've learned about organizing is that ... and it's true about our own lives, that the ability to do something meaningful and have some autonomy where you can shape what you're doing really is what gets the most out of people. Look at, again, the Obama campaign in '08,  built on volunteers doing work that most presidential campaigns, up until then, had farmed out to paid staff. So volunteers can do this but they need to be organized into teams, people have to have roles, they need to get training and support, and they need to be connected together into a larger program. 

Marc Abizeid: And the way you put it succinctly is to treat the people in your organizations as the ends not the means to the ends. 

Gordon Whitman: Yeah. And so much of our politics, so much of our society treats us as consumers, to be kind of presser-button, sell us things. Our politics operates that way, where so much money is spent on digital and lots of types of ads, and polling, and that often gets replicated in our organizations where we think, well let's have people sign an online petition or come to a rally that someone else plans. 

So we're really trying to go back to a politics where people shape the agenda and have space to really be agents of change and not just kind of respond to somebody whose running an organization telling them what to do. 

Marc Abizeid: The fourth conversation is base, recruiting and following your need to lead. 

Gordon Whitman: Yes, so this is really organizing. It's building a base of people who are acting in their own interests to create change and the labor movement, that's when labor unions trust that the most powerful negotiating leverage they have is the ability of workers to go on a strike. And a great book by Jane McAlevey, No Shortcuts, which I draw in Stand Up, really makes the case that there's lots of different ways in which the labor movements try to protect itself in advanced worker interests, but fundamentally, the only thing you can really fall back on is the ability of workers to go on a strike. 

And that doesn't just happen. It takes organizing, it takes people starting with sort of smaller fights that help build up their muscle. So building a base, really going out and talking to people, and it's what we said earlier, there's so many people out there waiting to be engaged and involved in social change. We're not spending enough time talking to people who aren't already convinced. So base building is really talking to people who don't necessarily see themselves as activists or involved in justice social change. 

But so often when you talk to people, you talk to them about what they care about, they're willing to respond and be a part of something. So really trying to build organizations that face outward and go out and talk to people. 

Marc Abizeid: The fifth and last conversation that you outline in the book is power, winning social change. And this one's about directly confining people in power. You write in the book, directly engaging people in power is important because it helps us realize our own power and makes our own organizations smarter and more creative. 

Gordon Whitman: Yeah. It's sort of amazing when you think about the world of social change, how not often people get to directly confront decision makers. And in part of what I've learned as an organizer in the last 20 years, is that the things that's most transformative to help people see themselves and the world, is getting to sit down face to face my mayor, city council person, the prosecute, the bank president, super transformative to how people understand their own voice and power. We have a lot of experience within PICO or Faith and Action, that that experience of getting to ... we call them research actions, they can be small group meetings, they can be sitting in someone's office until they meet with you, but going to meet with a decision maker really helps people see the world differently. And helps you realized, "Oh, I have more influence and power than I thought." 

And it's really one of the missing pieces of ... rallies are great, protests are great, they can play a role, but hat politics has people working directly to make change in their community. And I tell a story in the book about an organizing campaign we ran in our own town, around the town I live in, Arlington, Virginia, around a special ed program that my son's in. 

And how we built a base of parents who depended on that program, who had kids in special ed, but then really had to go into a whole set of very direct and confrontational meetings with the school board and the school district officials to be able to both understand what was happening and why these cuts were being proposed and then to ultimately reverse them. So really preaching the importance of people being able to direct and engage in political confrontation with decision makers. 

Marc Abizeid: And in that last example that you talked about, in the book, about your son and the cuts to the special needs programs, programs for people with Autism and learning disabilities, you show us how you use each one of those conversations. You break it down one by one, to be able to achieve this sort of victory that you achieved, which by the end of the day, you guys go those cuts reversed. 

But what you say somewhere else in the book, and you have, actually, the book is really just rich with these different types of real life examples, really practical examples, is that with examples like that, with cases like that and with cases in Philadelphia where you talk about Rosie, the lady who worked the crosswalk in front of a school in a very rough area of the city where there was a lot of gun violence, a lot of drug dealing, and you guys wanted to get a police patrol there in the morning and after school to at least create some sort of sense of security for those people in that neighborhood, for the students. And there was some resistance with the school, but after some organizing, you won that. You won that fight and then there was other battles at that school later on. 

The parents, they realized, "Oh, if we can win this, we can win other battles too." They got a new roof, for example, I think you write about in the book. There's an all day kindergarten, there's a number of other things that happened. But you also write that despite those victories, that did nothing to get at the root causes of the programs, none of these changes altered the underlining inequality that still makes Philadelphia one of the poorest big cities in the United States. 

So my question is, within all of these, how do we apply this model at a larger level? Here, we're talking about kind of smaller local level initiatives, where you won clear victories, but how do you actually change now, the structure of power, the underlying causes, the root causes of a lot of these problems?

Gordon Whitman: And I think that's one of the big challenges and it's something that I've spent a lot of time working on and a lot of colleagues working on, is how do we connect that local experience that really is a door for lots of people into social change? And really believe that just people need to take steps into change and we've gotta create opportunities for people to do that. So that's one piece of it. 

And then the organizations that we're inviting people into need to be better organizations, more humane, less manipulative, more racially conscious, more willing to really trust people to take on leadership. And I think the third ingredient is we have to have structures that connect these things together so that we can go from local to state to federal, ultimately we got international capacity we've gotta build, in terms of building bridges across countries. 

So part of the work of community organizing and the network I work for over the last seven, eight, nine years, has really worked on how do you tie together lots of local work and bring it to scale at the state level and ultimate the federal level. I think right now, our big challenge is to build the power to govern our states. A lot of work to take local organizing and bring it to the level where we're articulating big bowl vision for what should happen in a state around criminal justice reform, protecting immigrants, raising wages, family benefits, preschool, investment education. 

California's been a great example of this, we're seeing other states that are really trying to take precedent from the local level and make it state policy. And ultimately, we're really building in a national movement to shift how the country works. So that's a tricky piece of work to try and connect local, state, federal. But the history of this country is that you can't really start at the national level, you've gotta build it up from the ground up. So that's the philosophy. 

...

Marc Abizeid: And that was our conversation with Gordon Whitman, the deputy director of Faith and Action and author of Stand Up, How To Get Involved, Speak Out And Win In A World On Fire.

You can learn more about the book, available in both English and Spanish, at StandUpBook.org. You can also find a video recording of a book talk Gordon gave during a visit to UC Berkeley in February on our website at haasinstitute.berkeley.edu/videos.

To listen to more episodes of Who Belongs? Visit us online haasinstitute.berkeley.edu/whobelongs. Or you can find us on social media using the handle, @haasinstitute. 

Thank you for listening.