My Name is Not Saul Alinsky, and Neither is Yours.

Ivy HestIndividual Sustainability, Supervising and Mentoring

At my first meeting in my new job a few years back, I put an agenda on the white board.  I asked if anyone had anything to add, but all I got were eye rolls.  Then I had us set ground rules: we start and end on time, we respect each other, etc.  When this painful meeting was over, one member came over to me.  “That’s not how the last organizer did it,” she said.

A few months later, after I was less nervous and learned how to work with the group a bit more, we had another meeting, and I solicited peoples’ ideas for what they thought would make meetings more engaging.  Another member raised their hand.  “That’s not what how the last organizer did it.”

You're doing it wrongEventually, I asked them if they trusted me to try things out, even if they were different from what the last organizer did.  Their answer was, “Of course we trust you, but if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!  Everything worked fine with the last organizer.  So just do it her way.  Why does it matter?”

I trained myself to do things exactly how the last organizer did it.  I would even talk to the last organizer and find out how she did certain things so that I spared myself the torment of being told I was doing it wrong.  And this went on for a few years.  I was the replacement for who they had before, and while I had my own personality, skills, and strengths, the last organizer was extremely effective and I started to justify to myself that there was no need to rock the boat.  If things had worked with her, transition is hard enough and I should just do what she did.

I started to get bored and drained.  I would have challenging, thought provoking conversations with other organizers about how to deal with issues or take on a campaign.  When I would try them out on the members, they would role their eyes or otherwise not engage in the new activity.  My conversations with my colleagues simply became thought experiments, and nothing more. The work was fun and engaging, but I felt like I just wasn’t living up to the kind of standards the previous organizer had created. 

I started to feel like I was a bad organizer.  Where were my crazy ideas coming from, if they were so off base from what everyone’s done in the past?  Why couldn’t I leave well enough alone?  And why wasn’t I performing the tasks the last organizer had performed as well when I was doing it her way?  I was practically being spoon-fed how to work with these people, and still I was struggling.  Since I couldn’t be as good as the last organizer, was I even hurting the organization by trying my own things out?


I have a terrible habit of idolizing other organizers I admire.  I see little wrong in their methods, and mostly wish that I were them and then start bashing myself and rehashing all the things I do that aren’t as good as what they do.  Short of hanging a poster of them on my walls, I would hang on their every word, practice their styles, and be an information sponge.  I remember a co-worker telling me that I really needed to push this organizer off this pedestal I had built for her.  It was getting too high and I would never be able to reach it.  (Ok, maybe she wasn’t quite as poetic with her language…)

To be fair to myself, the last organizer didn’t help much with setting this little birdie free.  She would thoughtfully and clearly explain what she had done.  She told me that organizing didn’t always work the way my books told me it should, and I needed to take risks.  But what she didn’t realize (and neither did I at the time) was that trying out what I was learning was exactly how I was taking risks.  I needed to learn for myself what my style was, from the ideas I had chosen through my learning.

I never really understood that so much of an organizer’s success lies in how the organizer expresses his/herself.  Everyone has his/her own way of learning and growing, and that method doesn’t always work for the next person.  We’re not all Saul Alinsky.  We’re not all fierce or confrontational, or (insert your idea of what an organizer should be here).  We can have a quiet power.  We can be funny.  We can be sincere.  We’re allowed to care about our members, not just see them as “professional relationships”.  Organizing is complicated, and organizers should be complicated along with it.

In addition to my predecessor, I had three women who I idolized as organizers.  They presented themselves as powerful.  They had tattoos or dressed nicely or had deeper voices than I do (which, honestly isn’t hard to do.  When I’m nervous I sound like I just sucked on a tank of helium).  I wanted to be as effective as they were, and I felt that part of that was to be as much of a badass as they are.  But my definition of badass was narrowly defined.


Just three years ago, I was asked to lead a training with new organizers on how to door knock for issues.   It was a big, exciting opportunity for me, since I had never been asked to train this group before and had a lot of respect for the work this group did.  I channeled these three women, trying to act the way I know them to act in important meetings.  I was formal, wrote an agenda on the white board, and started to give them my background in organizing.  I was nervous and I felt stiff, trying so hard to act the way I thought I should.  I dressed the way some of my role models dress.  But if you know me, you know it’s hard for me to wear clothes if there isn’t pink, sparkles, flowers, or bright colors involved.  I was putting on a disguise for this group, hoping I could fake my way out of being myself.

And then, someone responded to a question, and I couldn’t help myself.  I teased them for their answer.  Then the next person responded, and as we continued down the line, I found myself getting more and more comfortable as I slipped out of the persona I was playing.  I started cracking jokes, asking questions, and worrying less about the mechanics of the meeting and more about how they would accomplish their goals.  By the end of everyone sharing their names, I was sitting on top of the desk and had scribbled some terrible stick figures on the board, which I’m sure made sense at the time.

And guess what— I was Badass.  I put together a phenomenal training that left the attendees well equipped to go out there, while also making sure they have space to define their own style of door knocking.  Because talking to people about the same thing, over and over and over again, is a great way to define your style.

So here are some thoughts on finding your own voice:

You go, girl!  Find that voice of yours!

You go, girl! Find that voice of yours!

  • Talk to people you admire.  Call them and ask them questions.  Meet with them and talk about your ideas.  Learn from them.  A huge part of organizing is learning what makes people tick— so, go ahead!  Learn what makes them tick.
  • Read.  Read the books.  Skim them.  Share them.  Take them in.
  • Read my blog!  Just kidding (kind of).  But please contact me, because I’ve got so many resources, I practically have my own organizing library here.
  • Go to any trainings you can.  I go to trainings all the time, but even the Organizing 101 classes.  Why?  Because a) I am reminded and grounded back into what’s important in the work, and b) I study how the material is taught.  I did one program where the best thing I learned from it was all the ice breakers they made us do at the beginning of each session.  Trainings are awesome.
  • Don’t let people tell you how it’s supposed to be.  Unless someone is a Roberts Rules Devil, you can and should change it up, and find what works for you.
  • Then, ignore it all and trust your gut.  It’s like the football analogy I described in a previous post.  You practice and prepare for the game, but when it comes, you don’t know what’s going to get thrown at you.  Best thing you can do is use what you’ve learned to guide your awesome new ideas.
  • Go ahead and take those silly risks.  Change it up and have a sing-along of movement songs instead of a speaker like you always have.  Start that Twitter Storm with the hashtag: #organizerswithmoustaches.  Start a puppy drive campaign and bring all the puppies to my house.  I don’t know, they’re your crazy ideas, I’m just encouraging them.
  • Have fun, dammit.  The struggle is hard and important, but so is not taking yourself too seriously.  I recommend dressing in costume.  Or slowly changing the items in your co-worker’s cubicle upside-down every day to see how long it takes for them to notice.

And for the supervisors out there:

  • Take these broken wings and let them fly (or something).
  • Don’t give them all the answers.  Even if they ask.  Even if they’re sitting in the fetal position in the corner muttering organizing jargon to themselves while whimpering softly.  Not like that ever happens….nope…I’ve certainly never done that…

Get out there, tiger.  Let your weird personality shine through your social justice work like that iphone flashlight app in the dark while you’re “camping”.  That light’s way too bright, man, but what would we do without it?  What if there’s poison oak?

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