I am so excited about what it means to organize right now. Not only are there unprecedented federal resources on the table to spark transformational change in communities, it’s clear that organizers, because they are trusted and engaged where they live, can turn this potential for change into reality.
Organizing is an antidote to hate. In a time of great disconnection, we can weave communities together with a sense of trust and hope for the future, for those who have a long legacy on these shores as well as newcomers.
That’s why People’s Action is calling for an Organizing Revival. We want to deepen and share, far and wide, the transformational skills community organizers know so we can restore our faith in one another. Together we can realize our country’s promise to build a multiracial democracy that works for all of us.
When I recently shared my excitement about this with one of our donors, he listened carefully, then asked, “But isn’t this like those ‘stop-sign’ campaigns of years ago? Didn’t we conclude that organizing in the neighborhood is a dead end, which will never reach the level of power we need to win?”
He has a point. An earlier generation learned to organize only around local goals, such as winning a stop sign for a dangerous intersection. We were taught these goals should be achievable, such as fixing a pothole or a broken streetlight, and should always come from the community. As one of the founders of National People’s Action, Shel Trapp, put it, “Just because you think it is an issue does not make it an issue. Just because you think it is not an issue does not mean it is not an issue.”
For Shel and his peers, organizing meant mostly staying in the neighborhood, and staying out of politics. Yet they were unafraid to break their own rules, as when they won national legislation to force banks to lend in Black and poor neighborhoods in the 1970s.
And while the ‘stop-sign’ approach to organizing has limits, it is also brilliant, because it teaches you to meet people where they are. This idea is simple but powerful. For organizers, it teaches us how to listen to community members to identify what matters most, then motivate people towards a solution through the basic practices of civic engagement.
When done well, these types of campaigns can go deep and build the muscle memory and confidence communities need to win bigger goals.
In my experience, these campaigns brought community leaders in front of their city council members and mayor, taught local grassroots leaders how local governments make decisions about where to allocate resources, and the direct implications community engagement could have on what happens on the ground. If we want people to believe in government, we have to show people that government can and will work for them, at every level.
At People’s Action, we believe you have to combine deep local organizing with the courage to fight and win at scale. This is what led People’s Action to step forward as a national organization in 2016, when regional networks of grassroots groups came together to form a more powerful collective that could win structural change.
That’s why we created our Long-Term Agenda. This set of building blocks was discussed, drafted and approved by our members over a multi-year process to identify the strategy we need to achieve the goals of a multiracial democracy and a sustainable economy, with racial and gender justice for all.
As a part of this vision, our network committed to build political infrastructure which complements our issue-based organizing. People’s Action and nearly all of our member groups now have both C3 and C4 organizations so we can elect and co-govern with public officials who share our values.
People’s Action has won major victories with this strategy. We turned out millions of voters in 2020 and 2022, mobilizing as if our very lives depended on the results, because for many of us it did. We passed the MAT Act, which saves lives from overdose, and won the trillions of dollars which are now flowing into communities to build a green economy through the American Rescue Plan, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the CHIPS Act and the Inflation Reduction Act.
Winning national victories doesn’t mean we don’t need stop signs, or the deeply transformational skills organizers learn in their local communities. Now more than ever, people need to see and feel the benefits of organizing where they live. This is especially true in Black, Brown and working-class communities, which have been systematically starved of resources for decades.
That’s why I’m so excited by the work organizers from our member groups, like Rafael Smith of Citizen Action of Wisconsin and Carrie Santoro of Pennsylvania Stands Up, are doing right now. They are working hard to bring home the benefits of federal funding to their local communities, so they can transform neighborhoods block by block with safe streets, warm and comfortable homes, and green jobs in a sustainable economy.
Our member groups are uniquely positioned to make the most of this moment, because they have worked for decades to establish trust. Because they have long worked to create local change, organizers like Carrie and Rafael are trusted members of their communities.
At People’s Action, we believe that if we strengthen and scale the skills that win change in local communities through our Organizing Revival, we can unlock the potential of this moment for our nation.
We all know the challenges we must face together - the mistrust of government, our climate crisis and the erosion of civil society - reach far beyond our neighborhoods. Because we know how to listen and fight where we live, I am confident that we can fight for and win the transformational change our country needs.
Sulma Arias is executive director of People's Action and the People's Action Institute, the nation's largest network of grassroots power-building groups, with more than a million members in 30 states.