Introduction to Community Organizing: Choosing an Issue

By Angela Butel, JRLC Bonner Fellow, Thursday, 24 January 2013

I’ve always been inspired in my work for social justice by an energizing quote from the Unity School of Christianity. It goes like this:

“I fairly sizzle with zeal and enthusiasm, and spring forth with a mighty faith to do the things that ought to be done by me.”

Usually, in social justice work, finding people with zeal and enthusiasm is not the hard part; the challenge is in figuring out what the “things that ought to be done by me” might be.

For example, I recently attended a meeting of passionate idealists who had resolved to come together to make a change in their community. They spent the meeting discussing the problems at hand and then brainstormed next steps. The flipchart at the front of the room was full of ideas like “Build bridges,” “Fight prejudice,” “End corruption.” These are all laudable goals, but I struggled to imagine precisely what this group might do to accomplish them. Without a plan of action for achieving specific, tangible goals, the energy around the issues will simply disperse.

To avoid that sort of fizzling, it’s important to clearly define the issue you hope to work on. This post, the second installment in our Introduction to Community Organizing series, presents some tips from the Midwest Academy Manual for Activists on how to choose an issue that will engage the enthusiasm of your group and channel it toward concrete, successful action.

The first step in choosing an issue is to understand the difference between an issue and a problem. The people at that meeting were aware of the problems in their community – factionalism, prejudice, corruption – but hadn’t yet articulated specific ways to solve them. As the Midwest Academy puts it, “A problem is a broad area of concern. An issue is a solution or partial solution to the problem.” You don’t organize people around homelessness; you organize them around a bill to allocate more funding to affordable housing programs, or around creating a coalition of churches willing to provide shelter to those who need a place to stay.

Most likely, if you are concerned with large, complex problems like homelessness or hunger, you will not be able to pick one issue that will solve the problem completely; you will need to target one specific facet of the problem. How do you choose that issue? The Midwest Academy suggests many criteria for this process. A good issue should:

Result in Real Improvement in People’s Lives. There must be some measurable way to determine whether your work on the issue has succeeded. Are people better off than they were before? On a related note, the issue should be worthwhile. People who sign on to help must feel that their work is going toward something that is worth the effort.

Be Winnable. Don’t choose an issue that is so huge and abstract that the end result is unimaginable. Those involved should be able to see, from the beginning, that there is a good chance of succeeding in their efforts.

Be Widely Felt. You need a large base of support, so pick an issue that will appeal to many different people.

Be Deeply Felt. People need to not only agree with your issue, they need to care enough to do something about it.

Be Easy to Understand. If people do not see that the problem you are targeting exists, or if they cannot understand how your solution will contribute to fixing the problem, they are unlikely to support your cause.

Have a Clear Decision Maker. A Decision Maker is a person, such as a Mayor or other elected official, who has the power to give you what you want.

Be Non-Divisive. This does not mean that you can never work on issues that are controversial. However, it’s important to frame your issue so that your supporters will be united in working toward a common goal, rather than arguing with each other.

Be Consistent with Your Values and Vision. Does this issue fit with the personal values that guide how you want to live in community with those around you? If you are organizing in the context of your faith community, how does this issue help promote the kind of world that your faith tradition calls on you to help build?

Click here for the complete Midwest Academy checklist of criteria for choosing a good issue.

On the note of values and vision, there are plenty of teachings from different faith traditions that encourage us to work on those tasks that are “ours to do” instead of spreading ourselves thin trying to take on everything at once.

For example, from my own Catholic tradition comes the voice of Archbishop Oscar Romero, praying, “We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us…We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.”

Or, from the Jewish tradition, there is the concept of tikkun olam. This idea began with a myth about holy vessels that held God’s light. These vessels, unable to contain the magnificent light, shattered, and the sparks of light were scattered across the world. Our task as humans is to seek out those sparks where we can find them and gather them up, doing our part to contribute to the repairing of the world. No individual will be able to gather all the sparks, but working together we can find them all eventually.

Whatever the inspiration that guides you to work for social justice, we hope you’ll keep following our blog for more Introduction to Community Organizing tips on how to get started doing your part to make the world a better place!

In the meantime, take a look at JRLC’s Legislative Goals for 2013. We’ve chosen the issues where we feel JRLC’s work will be most effective; take a moment to brush up on them before Day on the Hill on February 21st!

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