What is community organizing? And what do we mean when we say that Gamaliel “builds power”?
Introducing Community Organizing 101, a series of blog posts, explainers, infographics and more that will demystify the world of community organizing and give insight into how Gamaliel and our affiliates practice it in the real world. We’ll start by introducing a glossary of core concepts, and then dive into a new one each month, featuring voices and points of view from a variety of our staff members.
Follow along with us and join the conversation!
World as it is vs. How it should be
Gamaliel’s community organizers do their work because they see the injustice in the world, and they’re angry about it. But their work is also a radical act of hope. We believe that we can transform our world into one marked by equity, compassion, shared abundance and radical inclusivity.
Our organizers are committed to training ordinary people to participate in the political, environmental, social and economic decisions that affect their lives. That means being realistic about the world we live in and constantly hopeful that the world we want is attainable.
Organizing and Faith-based organizing
Community organizing is the process Gamaliel uses to build power. We build power by building relationships — through one-on-one conversations, shared self-interest, and trust. Powerful movements are created when everyone involved is clear on why they participate and has genuine empathy and concern for the concerns and needs of others in their community.
For a long time, faith-based organizing meant organizing within religious communities like churches or synagogues, and organizers built relationships with people based on shared religious values. Gamaliel’s roots are in congregation-based organizing, and many of our affiliates are made up of religious groups, but today, our work is based in faith and secular values. Our Network is open to people of all faiths and no faith, people who belong to a congregation and those who never have. Our members’ self-interests are widely varied. But we all value of justice, equity, and shared abundance.
Dominant Narrative vs Transformational Narrative
We all have a personal worldview, values, beliefs, assumptions that inform how we understand the world and what happens in it. That worldview comes from our families, our faith, our schools, the media, our experiences.
A public narrative is a story that is grounded in a shared worldview, and over time, they become part of our shared experiences through the way people communicate with and act toward one another, and the messaging people receive from their communities. When told in a different way, a public narrative can change what people think is possible in their communities.
A dominant public narrative is one that overpowers other narratives and has the most power to shape what is possible in a community. These narratives are shaped and promoted by a group of people, like government officials or the wealthy, for a specific reason. But if those people are powerful enough, their narratives can become so dominant that even people who don’t belong to that “in-group” can come to accept it as reality.
A transformational narrative is one that claims there can be another way. A transformational narrative dares to ask “what if?”. What if you are just as powerful as those at the top of the social and political ladder? What if you claim that power alongside others in your community? What if the unjust systems that operate in our society were changed?
A transformational narrative calls upon individuals to turn the world as it is into the world as it should be.
When you think of power, you probably think of political power, or power over other people — or even the villains from movies and TV who just want power for power’s sake.
But when we talk about power, we aren’t talking about the ability to control other people. In community organizing, power is the ability to act in your own self-interest, and to influence the political, environmental, social and economic decisions that affect your life. Power is the ability to claim what’s rightfully yours — your ability to speak and act publicly in your community.
So what does it mean when we say we “build power”? It means that we organize people, organize money, and provide training so more people in our communities can exercise their power publicly.
Organized People, Organized Money
We believe power comes from two sources: organized people and organized money. Organized people work together toward a common goal because they share interests and values.
But let’s be clear — we live in a capitalist society. Nothing gets done without money. But having and raising money isn’t enough. That money has to be used strategically, or organized, to bolster and sustain the work organized people are doing.
Leaders are people who work to organize people and money in their communities. They’re key to getting other members of their communities involved, finding mutual self-interest with key figures, and leading meetings and carrying out public actions.
Self-interest is what compels you to participate in community organizing. Why does this matter to you? What’s at stake for you if nothing changes? That’s your self-interest.
Our culture conflates self-interest and selfishness, but that’s not the case. If you believe that you should only live to serve others, that it’s wrong to have a self-interest in your work and organizing, you are participating in your own oppression. You are denying yourself an active role in creating a world that serves you and your community, and you’re not being fully honest with yourself and your colleagues about your reasons for participating in an organizing movement.