In late February I attended a week long training session in leadership and community organising as part of our Building Local Activism work. Organised by Thrive Teesside, Church Action on Poverty and Wales TCC, I went to Manchester expecting a fairly interesting and standard week of training. But this was no standard week of training. It was led by the American Greg Galluzzo, of the Gamaliel Foundation, the man famed with training Barack Obama in community organising. Just a quick google search will bring up a variety of information about the man, from his days as a mentor to Obama, his training as a Jesuit Priest, to his aspirational and ground-breaking work for the Gamaliel Foundation. This man is famous for his methods and techniques of teaching organising. I quickly learnt this training was not for the faint-hearted. Indeed, many aspects of this weeks training were intentionally provocative and offensive. However, I wanted to share my experiences to reflect on what valuable knowledge could be gleaned from what was often an uncomfortable, yet enlightening, week.
We met for the first time on a sunny Sunday afternoon. We talked about challenging our governments to live up to strong social values, the disengagement that sweeps our society and the “conditioning” we face as a result of our political climate. We started with a simple exercise, naming a person we admired from history. Nelson Mandela, Oscar Romero, Emmeline Pankhurst and Jesus were all mentioned. We had it pointed out to us that the common denominator with all these people is the method they used to create change – no one worked in isolation, they all relied on some form of “violence” and lastly they provoked people into bringing about change for themselves. The underlying message was that we need to be comfortable with conflict, and that we choose to be powerless so we do not accept responsibility for the state of our society. The stated aim of the week was to train people in community organising, enabling us to move from our “private life” where we have no external influence into the “public arena” where true power, influence and liberation lies.
On Monday we looked at power, a word that can easily be viewed negatively. We were told that “those who say no to power are lazy and cowards”, and that power needs to be understood as a positive attribute. Apparently, we use powerlessness as a tool to manipulate people; indeed during this session I was called a “lazy little chicken” and a “typical woman” for saying that I didn’t feel powerful in my community. I was told that I was happy to be “looked after by a man” and have “no responsibility” in life. Clearly, these extremely provocative words were meant to make me uncomfortable and push me into action.
In answer to feeling powerless, Galluzzo claims the key to power is organised people and organised money – if we have these we will have the ability to effect the change we want. According to him, we can only organise people when we know our “self interest” – understanding what we want and how this connects to other people. It is the convergence of two people’s self interest which creates power. Importantly, power will not come from selflessness, for you cannot define yourself by what you do for others – “you can’t justify your existence by being nice to people.” He was not afraid to express his disgust of certain activities, regardless of how it made the audience feel. This was a tough and important aspect of the training. Galluzzo was not shy to tell clergymen and priests in the audience that their role within religious institutions was fundamentally flawed because of their passivity. Another community organiser was told he was incompetent, for if he had done his job properly his role would be redundant.
On Tuesday we looked at values and one to ones. One to ones are strategic and intentional conversations to initiate a mutually beneficial relationship to understand someone’s self interest, in the terminology of the session. We then looked at relationships, both public (with external and professional audiences) and private (family and friends). By understanding the differences in these relationships, we can define expectations and hold people to account. Having strong public relationships is key to having power, according to Galluzzo. He ended the session by stating “the process of oppression is to strip people of their public lives.”
On Wednesday we moved to power analysis, exploring examples from organisations such as Thrive Teesside and TCC who have successfully held those in power to account. We unpicked the institutions seen as “power brokers” and the individuals in the community who wanted to be in that position. By understanding those in power, it highlighted where we should be as individuals – visionary, financially in control and supported by allies. We then looked at issues – the very thing at the heart of community organising – something which demands an action that a group of people can target. The session suggested that these issues must be winnable, concrete, fairly short term, in line with our self interest and targeted. Issues such as these are often raised at assemblies in front of over 100 participants. What is important is the polarisation of an issue, where the community is right, and the person in power is wrong. Galluzzo told us that issues must be seen as black and white, where responsibility can be pinned on one person, in order for political movement to happen.
Throughout the week, the language and methods used by Galluzzo were provocative, and some times questionable. People were pushed relentlessly, undermined and told that they were lazy and cowardly – myself included. We were made to feel small, vulnerable and unable to effect the changes that we would want to bring about as potential community organisers. Some of the language used has been highlighted here, other expletives would not be suitable. Some people were pushed to tears, with powerful tools of reflection making people re-evaluate their jobs and experiences to date. On Thursday however, Galluzzo unveiled the power of “agitation.” Agitation is to be done in the context of an existing relationship, challenging perceptions of where someone is in a given situation, and pointing to where someone should be, highlighting the difference and change you think is needed. It is also done to elicit a response, and should work to spur people into action. This style did push some participants into action, seeking to prove Galluzzo’s assumptions wrong. Others were not so able. One participant commented, “this (style) is so American. We’re meant to be polite.” To this Galluzzo replied, “you can always justify your own cowardice.”
Although difficult to watch, this process of agitation was crucial for teasing out people’s motivations and the personal circumstances which lead to their want to be community organisers. We spoke about oppression. Galluzzo claimed that most community organisers had been oppressed at some point in their lives. However, it is this oppression which makes people take calculated actions and risks, and become interested in community organising in the first instance.
Stepping back from the training, it is apparent that community organising is a tool helping ordinary people do extraordinary things. It can enable people to take control of their own lives, tackling issues affecting ordinary people who had not been able to push for change by themselves. Although Galluzzo’s techniques were at times unorthodox, it was clear that we need to all be comfortable with conflict, as this is where the creation of solutions lies. Speaking to participants, after a week of intense and at times uncomfortable training, we emerged feeling changed, confident, and ambitious in what we want to do next. As Galluzzo said, if we can deal with him, we can deal with anyone in power.