Notes on Community Organizing in the time of COVID
Organizing can sometimes feel like pushing, hands outstretched, against heavy slabs of concrete standing on immovable pedestals.
Organizing requires convincing you, as one individual — then many, many more individuals after you — of three truths about power:
1) That you have power.
2) That, collectively, the power you have working alongside your community is multiple times greater than the combined power you and your community would have working alone.
3) And, that those who you’ve long understood to have power, are, in fact, not as powerful as we have been taught to believe.
This convincing is hard, necessarily persistent work. False narratives have to be unlearned and countered. Our three truths about power have to be argued, re-argued, then brought to life and demonstrated repeatedly, through both small campaign wins and longer lasting transformative experiences.
The inspiration and drive that must fuel this work comes from an organizer’s theory of change that sees in people and places, particularly those who are often unseen, near limitless possibility. This theory of change is premised on the hypothesis that, under the right conditions, people will move towards goodness. This hypothesis is not unwavering, however. A culture born out of an extractive economy — steeped in individualism, consumerism, scarcity and competition — casts long shadows and causes doubt, even in the most determined organizers.
Then a political opening arrives.
The political opening introduces a window of time and space where a critical mass of people allow themselves to not only reconsider the status quo, but to confront their own possible complicity and possible agency within this status quo.
The political opening also transforms an organizer’s relationship to their perpetual task at hand. Suddenly, the metaphorical weight of the work — that figurative concrete organizers push against to build readiness and desire and energy for change — lightens, then disappears all together.
Without that weight to push against, the organizer is stumbling forward, tipping towards the ground. But right as they’re about to fall, they’re pulled back up, then forward.
As their eyes go from looking down to looking ahead, they see that they’re being steadied and propped back up by the same individuals they were trying to convince of their agency and power a moment ago. The people, now running together, are in front of the organizer.
These people are moving.
They’re in full sprint. The energy and excitement that the organizer worked so long to seed and nourish is on full display. When the people look back at the organizer now, it’s not to ask them to help steady their resolve. Instead, it’s to ask for those demands, that direction, guidance, and history that the organizer had previously shared, but with a desire more fervent than ever before.
It’s more than ok that the organizer is repeating themselves in this moment, that they may not be leading as much as they’re being led, because everything’s different now.
COVID-19’s Unprecedented Political Conditions
Our current political opening is a time for many of us to be reassured, steadied, and re-grounded in that shared motivating hypothesis: under the right conditions, people will move towards goodness.
Indeed, conditions are ripe for movement.
COVID brought social distancing and shelter in place.
COVID also temporarily stripped from our everyday lives countless sources of consumption — consumption of goods, consumption of experiences such as travel, dining, entertainment, and live sports, and our more modern consumption of social media content, curated for us by corporate algorithms. COVID even stripped us of our more lightly-connected relationships and communities that were rooted more in shared consumption than meaningful, curiosity-inspired connections.
COVID abruptly introduced a set of universal conditions where our civic identities could once again compete with our often all-encompassing, if not always acknowledged, consumer identities.
COVID changed our conversations. It introduced a renewed level of sincerity into the greeting and question “How are you?” — now asked with a new readiness to hear and listen to each other’s answers, acknowledging that everyone is going through something in this moment. COVID’s conditions brought vulnerability and mutuality back into our relationships.
With new leaders at the helm of organizations like the Working Families Party, COVID and the political conditions it brought about arrived just as the seeds planted by the founders of Black Lives Matter ( Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors, organizers from Oakland, CA, Phoenix, AZ, and Los Angeles, CA, respectively) were growing our sector and social movements’ capacity to change the rules. This new capacity — within and between us — blooming with more shared language, a deepening of our shared understanding, an amplifying of our shared vision and, importantly, a development and strengthening of our shared infrastructure and connective tissue locally, regionally, and nationally.
Stripped of physical community for so long, the uprisings swiftly and boldly drew us back out onto the streets.
We welcomed shared outrage. We welcomed that embodied spirit of agency and power in numbers, born out of collective will and collective action. We were invited to be in community, outside again, on the same streets that a global pandemic had only yesterday taught us to fear and avoid.
Our re-emergence was transformative.
For some of us, these gatherings in the streets were sites of reunion. For others, particularly young people, they were sites of introduction — a first-time encounter with a glorious new type of community, directly connected to lineages and legacies of social movements past, but distinctly their own, urging us to leap forward, towards ever-imagined freedom dreams.
Leaps and Desires Along Political Journeys
Political openings are times when people make incredible leaps along their political journeys. These leaps so often move us towards becoming what Grace Lee Boggs described as “more human, human beings” — they are leaps in “creativity, consciousness, self-consciousness, and [our] sense of political and social responsibility.”
In such times, those of us who have already traveled great distances along our own political journey can ask ourselves:
How do we build scaffolding under the feet of those who are making necessary leaps in this moment? Aware of the backwards pull that often follows political openings, how do we show up for those who, in such moments, chose action over apathy, helping them land higher than the place from which they first leapt? How do we ensure that each of their landings is surpassed by the next, that their strides lead them progressively further along in their individual, and our collective, political journey?
The purpose of scaffolding in a time of new leaps is to honor the desire, curiosity, and courage that powered the choice to leap. We honor these just as much, if not more, than we honor the content associated with someone’s political identity at any given moment. We build scaffolding to manifest our right relationships to newly planted seeds of possibility and to building the new.
Political openings are also moments in time that serve as the clearest of windows through which social movements can see and assess their preceding work. It is during political openings that such work has the room to breathe, stretch, and reveal itself.
COVID’s consequential removal of the distractions of consumption, of consumption’s false meaning and purpose, and of thinly connected communities exponentially augmented the immensity of space for the outpouring actions and expressions of collective power we have all witnessed.
How is this moment, then, not the starkest reminder for us to make social movements not only more just, but more irresistible?
We know our clear and present dangers. We know of political parties and of a President whose infatuations with power over others reveals to the entire world their own small fragile being. This year, though, also feels like a reminder of less clear, but nonetheless more present and more existential dangers.
The struggle for social justice, particularly within an “economy [ ] centered around the accumulation, concentration and enclosure of wealth and power,” has also always been a contest for people’s finite discretionary time — that time outside of work and family obligations that people have to devote more attention, more energy, and more vulnerability. This discretionary time has historically been split between our consumption of goods, our consumption of experiences, and our time spent in deep community, whether in civic associations, congregations or community-based organizations.
What we know with certainty is that in a span of two decades we have seen an unprecedented capture of our individual and collective discretionary time and culture by consumption and our overly-cultivated consumer identities. And, that, with the remaining and shrinking amount of time for deep community, we encounter a too often competitive approach by nonprofits that employ individualistic and transactional tactics rather than the collective and transformative strategies in communication and engagement that has been, and will always be, a movement’s compelling advantage over both consumer and surveillance capitalism.
What if this moment were a reminder that our worries need not be so focused on weak men gathered in small numbers projecting false power?
What if this political opening were a reminder that we are not supposed to be investing so much on the few who openly oppose us, or, the relatively few who hold, or are in proximity to more concentrated capital, no matter how aligned with us? What if this were a moment to focus less on their power, their privilege, and their resources, and, instead, an opportunity to double down on our own?
As a friend shared with me:
“In this year of social isolation, as well as what feels like paralyzing clarity about the indignities of racial capitalism, you all (who are already connected to movements) are so lucky to have and have had political homes, to be connected in community, to not feel lost, to not get lost in despair, to know both where to go to truly understand what’s happening in the world and how you can respond, with agency and responsibility and collective power.”
What if the legacy of this political opening was also a bold reclamation of our agency, derived from the privilege of our proximity to political homes, to make our movements more captivating and compelling, specifically more socially culturally captivating and compelling than consuming goods and experiences and thinly connected community?
What if, with a deep recognition of that privilege of ours — of already having been invited to pair the paralyzing and unsustainable feelings of anger, sadness, pain, and guilt that often prompt our political journey, with those more liberatory and sustainable feelings that we know have long defined movements, joy, love, laughter, creativity, mutuality, collective power and collective celebration — we become, above all else, seekers of others with whom to share and guide this privilege of political journeys and political homes?
What if we do this to the point that it no longer is a privilege, but an expectation? What if in that existential contest over people’s finite discretionary time, we win?
What if we attract enough of that discretionary time so that organizers and movements have the space and time to do what they are called upon to do — to transform people’s relationships to themselves, to their communities, and to society at large?
What if the glorious legacy of this political opening is simply that it never closed.
Note: This post is based on the research and work of Justice Funders’ Movement Commons Project, as well as the organizing & technology platform, Giving Side. Follow Mario Lugay and Justice Funders to be notified of future posts.
 Grace Lee Bogs, Living for Change: An Autobiography
 Movement Generation, From Banks and Tanks to Cooperation and Caring: A Strategic Framework for a Just Transition
Originally published at https://mariolugay.medium.com on October 21, 2020.