Jacobin - November 27, 2019
"Don’t be tricked into not discussing politics at the holiday gathering — but do it well, with a plan. Most peopledowant to engage on these issues, but not in a screaming match. And no one likes to be smarmily told anything. Rather, the structure of a basic organizing conversation is one where people are asked to think for themselves, where they do most of the talking, and where you help them puzzle through contradictions. And a conversation in which you can help them connect their self-interest to a broader, collective interest, and that allows you to get good at framing the choice to help them overcome their well-earned cynicism, will serve you — and the working class — well this Thanksgiving and beyond."
With the presidential primaries in full swing, this Thanksgiving holiday requires radicals to be organizers. It’s understandable that many dread political conversations around the turkey — nobody wants to be harangued during the holiday meal. But serious organizers don’t harangue, and if you follow my tips here, you should be able to win more street canvassers, phone bankers, or donations for your preferred candidate (or at least neutralize the effect of relatives who might remain confused about who and what is to blame for the economic and social malaise gripping the nation).
The concept of acting like an organizer, not merely an activist, is key. Organizers devote their time to engaging with people who are not yet in our movement, who don’t identify with “us,” who are disengaged from “our” movement — the vast “undecideds,” those who aren’t reading this magazine, or any of our social media feeds (yet). Activists are already in agreement about what’s wrong and who is to blame, and their focus is on getting other activists to take action. The first step to organizing is your approach and your attitude: you must shift from wanting to be right, to be heard, or to win the intellectual argument while everyone walks away from the table and retires to either play football, fall asleep from tryptophan overload, recline on the couch — or shop.
Organizing and being an organizer starts by behaving like one, by committing to a set of principles and methods, and trying them over and over. You talk less, you ask more. You plan the conversation strategy ahead of time and predefine success. For example, you persuade family members who might be wedded to a particular candidate in the election to change their mind instead of nailing the seven hundred thousand reasons Trump should be impeached. (That’s one reason for every federal worker he made come to work for no pay for a month at the start of 2019.)
I first learned the science and art of successful conversations from my mentors in the community organizing world. But I got way sharper at the process when I entered the union movement full time. That’s because the workplace in damned near every single union campaign is hijacked by professional union busters who know how to polarize the workplace. The link between a good, hard union-organizing conversation and this Thanksgiving holiday rests on not getting sucked into the trap of Fox News or MSNBC talking points at all. Union organizers focus on two things in a difficult conversation: the semantics we use (literally the word choices) and the structure of the conversation, meaning the progression of steps. They actually matter. What we call an SOC (a structured organizing conversation) assumes you’ve practiced shifting your word choices from exclusive ones to inclusive, and to those that attach the active participation of the person you are engaging to the solution they want on issues that matter to them.
For example, your twenty-one-year-old niece, Sally, comes to the holiday weekend thinking Amy Klobuchar sounds tough or Cory Booker did a great job at the last debate. Start by hearing her, not debating her. You will have way more success by being quiet than by being loud.
Step #1: Showtime! Introduction, Purpose, Context for the Conversation
Be excited to see Sally! And mean it. Organizers call this “showtime.” Ask how she’s doing; catch up for a few minutes; make sure you remember what she’s up to with her life today. And be clear you’d love to check in about her ideas and what she’s thinking about the upcoming election.
Step #2: Get Her Issues
Good questions to ask to understand what matters most to a coworker or niece aren’t different, though how you frame them might be. In a union campaign, we simply ask, “If you could change three things at work tomorrow, what would they be?” Note: we do not ask, “How’re things in your department?” which is way less specific and might drag you into long conversations about the jerk who leaves a mess in the bathroom and the boor who is always telling sexist jokes. We ask specific questions that get to the point: their working conditions.
As that relates to Niece Sally, a good way to get at what matters to her is a variation of: “If you had a magic wand and could change three things about life in America [or her town or city or school], what would you change?”
The rest of your conversation needs to be anchored to her answers to that question. That’s why getting issues is the second step in any hard conversation. You can’t skip this step, you can’t gloss it over, you can’t come back to it later, and you definitely can’t decide for Sally what her issues are — meaning, don’t impose your issues or the issues you hear other twenty-one-year-olds talk about onto her. She’s her own person.
If she goes vague or rogue, or snarky, like, “I’d like a million dollars in my bank account,” you can keep gently pressing with friendly, probing follow-ups like, “Me too! That one’s a little tricky. But on the way to getting a million bucks, what other three things do you want to see changed?”
You have to resist all the fun stuff you could say right here: the urge to be sarcastic in response is your activist impulse, not your organizer self. Sure, of course, you could have a field day with that, like, “Me too! Let’s rob a bank!” or “Let’s ask Jeff Bezos to donate a fraction of one hour of one day to do that for you because his income grows by $13 million per hour!” Do not say any of that. Keep probing.
Once you get Sally to say what’s on her mind — climate disaster, lack of funds for college or car payments or rent, or getting out of her parents’ house, for example — you can start to do the second part of this step: agitating.
If she has moved back in with her parents, you can ask, “Why do you think your parents’ generation didn’t struggle like you do to find affordable housing?” or “Who is making the decisions that drive up your rent so much? Why do you think they do that?” You want to get Sally thinking about who is to blame for her being at home and about what the real solutions are for so many young people being unable to afford living on their own. You know you’re getting somewhere when she starts saying stuff out loud such as, “Airbnb has removed a ton of affordable apartments that my friends and I used to live in,” or “My paycheck is pathetic and the boss has a ton of money,” or “The student loan interest kicked in already, while I am still finishing school. What’s up with that?”
When a worker, or your niece, starts to wonder about who is causing the problem and what do about it, move on to the next step. ...
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