How Is Organizing About Bouncing A Ball?

Conversation is the first and most important item in the toolkit of any organizer. Relational organizing centers conversation and relationships in building power. Building relationships and empowering others to organize helps you understand the problems in the community from the perspectives of those you meet. It also builds the organization’s capacity as more people decide to help.

Relational Organizing: Conversation Comes First

Relational Organizing, Democracy Spring, Healthcare Sit Ins

Justin Jacoby Smith leading a training for the Healthcare Sit-Ins in early July. Photo Credit: Justin Jacoby Smith/Facebook.

The topic for this article was chosen by Justin Jacoby Smith, a digital organizing specialist. He spent the last 18 months on the Democracy Spring (DS) campaign doing elbow-grease organizing, digital strategizing, and facilitating trainings for direct action campaigns. He defined relational organizing as, “Organizing that’s rooted in building relationships with people in a certain way that develops their leadership and what they’re capable of doing.” His specific interest is in how digital tools can enhance relational organizing across distances.

The opposite of relational organizing, according to Smith, is mobilization. “What mobilizers really do is they take a relationship like somebody that’s on their email list and they try to turn somebody out to a protest like, hey you’re on an email list, click and sign up for this sit-in that we’re having next week,” he said, “that’s not organizing.”  A relational approach to encouraging people to come to your event is recruiting volunteer leaders to make phone calls.

The second approach leverages relationships with volunteers, trains them to phone bank, and has them build relationships through conversations. Smith said, “You’re sort of building a chain because your person who’s receiving that phone call is being prodded and agitated to turn out and discover their own motivations. The person who’s making the phone call, the volunteer organizer, is someone who’s really stepping into a leadership role and developing their own capacities by figuring out how to mobilize people in a meaningful way.”

The organization expands its capacity through this approach to organizing. The phone calls will bring more people into the organization. The phone banking volunteers will feel invested in as leaders having been trained in new skills. And the operations available to the organization will grow as the volunteers gain more skills.

Healthcare Sit-Ins inside the Hart Senate Office Building in early July. Photo Credit: John Qua/Facebook.

Relational Organizing In Practice

In early July the Republicans ignited a wave of direct action and protest across the country when they tried to repeal Obamacare. There were sit-ins, rallies, and advocacy campaigns disrupting the schedules of everyone in Congress. Smith, who walks with a slight limp because of a mild case of cerebral palsy, helped plan these protests through DS. He saw efficient collaboration from the organizers through a free workplace communication platform called Slack. He said, “When Democracy Spring did healthcare sit-ins in July and local DSA chapters took part it was pretty remarkable how we set up 55 Slack channels for different states and people flooded into those Slack channels and proceeded to self-organize, and it was largely grassroots DSA folks that were really driving the work.”

He pointed out that this method for planning actions across the country worked well because it was decentralized. Nobody needed to wait for instructions. They knew what to do in their communities and the Slack channels allowed them to plan the actions with other people living near them.

Developments in communications technology for organizing people strengthens the ability of organizations to build resilient networks and efficient campaigns with broad-based support. Smith referenced what happened after the Water Protectors were evicted from their resistance camps in North Dakota. He said, “Now there’s a decentralized community of water protectors around the world who are in many places meeting up and having one another’s backs when it’s needed … There are really fresh options for decentralized relationship building with tech at our fingertips and it will only allow movements to become more sustainable and more full of energy and resources because we’re going to be able to be more resilient.”

The Original Relational Organizers

Saul Alinsky, radical, rules for radicals, activist, community organizer

Saul Alinsky

Smith learned about relational organizing through the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), an organizer training organization founded by Saul Alinsky in the 70’s. They support organizations that are rooted in communities of faith and they mobilize people based on their values.

He sent me a video about Valley Interfaith, a community organization in the Rio Grande Valley who exposed Smith to the work of the IAF. The people interviewed in the video discuss feeling empowered and inspired by the community organizing they got involved with through the IAF. A core principal of the IAF, their ‘Iron Rule’, is, “Never do for people what they can do for themselves.” Professional organizers with IAF train leaders in communities who run the campaigns important to them.

Charles Sherrod (Right) and Randy Battle visit a supporter in the Georgia countryside, 1963, Photo Credit: Danny Lyon/Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement, 114-115

Relational organizing is foundational to organizing. Many consider Alinsky the grandfather of modern organizing, and one of the other influential organizers Smith mentioned helped out during the Civil Rights Movement. Charles Sherrod defined organizing as being about bouncing a ball on a street corner in his book “I’ve Got The Light Of Freedom.” He meant that children will come to play with you while you bounce the ball, eventually one of the kids will send the ball into the yard of a neighbor, then they will need to knock on that neighbor’s door. “As soon as somebody opens a door to you for the first time you’re able to start to build a relationship with them,” he said, “and before you know it, you’ve organized the whole town.”

Relationships are the fountain that campaigns rely on for strength. Strong relationships are built through conversation, and they lead campaigns to have more volunteers and participants who they can rely on to drive the campaign forward. People who feel connected to a campaign will also work harder, bring more people into the fold, and eventually be able to have bigger impacts on society because of the skills and confidence that their relationship with your campaign gave them. “I think it’s a fundamental truth about this work that was true 50 years ago, and it’s true today when we’re online. You can start a conversation with people and that’s the gateway to really valuable relationship building,” he said. If you are new to organizing or recognized some of your faults while reading this article then take Smith’s advice and build deep relationships in your community over time instead of just trying to mobilize people for one day. The first step is to knock on a door.


For more information on relational organizing visit Relational Uprising, read “Cold Anger” by Mary Beth Rogers, or read this handbook on IAF Organizing Principles.

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