Ask Alfredo: Growing Pains

By Alfredo de Avila Jun 10, 1998

Dear Alfredo,

I’m a lead organizer in a small community organization that started four years ago. Recently, our organization has grown dramatically, so I now find myself spending a lot of time raising money and supervising two full-time organizers and one admin staff. We’re doing a lot more than we’ve ever done before. But there’s a slight problem: our old leaders, those that I recruited, are now feeling left out. They feel that the organization is changing too fast. I don’t know what to do about this. What am I supposed to do with this type of situation?

A Concerned Organizer

Dear Concerned Organizer,

Welcome to the world of growth. We start in this work by bringing people into the organization, either by recruiting new members or renewing old ones. You go out and knock on doors. You do house meetings. You do public speaking. You bring people into the organization. Organizing is exactly getting people to trust you, getting them to critically look at their problems, understand them, and getting them to understand that it takes collective action to make change. That’s what gets us hooked in this work: the personal contact with ordinary people who then make extraordinary changes.

The initial connection is with the organizer. When we knock on that door and meet people for the first time they look at us and think — can I trust this person? Is this a person who’ll be there with me as I take these new steps in a different direction? We know that we have to earn people’s trust by what we say, what we do, and what we deliver on. And at times it gets hard to build this kind of trust if we’re perceived as an outsider — because of our skin color, or the way we look, or the words we use — and this gets harder if we can’t communicate because we don’t speak their language. But these are the relationships that we as organizers build, one person at a time.

The most difficult task is to turn the relationship between organizer and leader into one between leader and the organization. Can I transfer this trusting relationship between me and the individual to other leaders and members, as well as to other staff? The other key question is can your leaders take a step forward and take on a new role in the organization? Can they see themselves as the glue that holds the organization together?

Suddenly, your responsibilities have changed. You’re not the one trying to do the campaigns. You’re now trying to assign the organizers the task of organizing people. And some of the leaders that grew accustomed to your methods and style are now feeling funny, uncomfortable. The question is: do they see the growth of the organization as positive or are they feeling that they don’t spend as much time with you anymore and you are becoming more distant?

People grow very much accustomed to dealing with the one person who they’ve worked with. As the organization expands, the relationships need to expand. I know this gets really tricky if you are the only bilingual organizer on staff and you’ve built these relationships with non-English speaking members. But then transferring these relationships to other members or staff becomes all the more vital. If the relationships always remain one-on-one, with the member and that one lead organizer, the moment that organizer is gone, the member is gone.

It’s not a simple thing. It’s going to take some time to build some bridges to make sure that you create an environment that’s going to bring new leaders together, and start connecting leaders with leaders. That’s what makes your organization an organization, not just some people who like a particular organizer.

Building these new relationships and new roles for your old leaders cannot just happen during campaigns. We can’t just move people from campaign to campaign and expect them to stay committed and enthusiastic. It is crucial that we not only bring people in on issues, but we build for the long haul by engaging our base in the core values/ politics of the organization. What are we trying to change in our communities? Can we build enough power to make real systemic change? How do our campaigns and projects give people experiences which help them envision a different way to organize our communities, our cities, our country? And how do these activities expose how race plays out in particular institutions and in society in general? How does our work connect with others?

You need to learn how to measure the political development of your leaders, your staff, and yourself. We have to define a new way of measuring a “win” which includes political development. One good indicator is when you have old leaders willing to ask questions rather than give answers to newer leaders. This shows that they feel comfortable and confident enough to lead by teaching others. As in all really good organizing, this takes time and a serious plan to make happen. Good organizers never leave anything to chance.

One fair warning to you: even though you’ve now got more staff, remember that all of us still need to spend some time knocking on doors. We can never be too busy to talk with new people. In fact, take the leaders that were tight with you and develop their capacity to recruit new people. It’s a great idea to take our leaders out to knock on doors, in twos, in a coordinated activity supervised by the staff. Everyone learns a lot. You get to spend time with your leaders, find out how their kids are doing, and continue to nurture the relationship.

Take your time. Work at it. Build the bases. Create the space. Teach your leaders that they can also do recruitment, that they can bring new people in, so that they become the rocks, the stones, the roots — the part that holds that organization together for the long haul. Lots of luck.”

Alfredo de Avila is an organizing consultant and former training director of the Center for Third World Organizing.