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The Organizer's Superpower: Starting Where People Are At
In organizing, we hear the phrase all the time, but what does it really mean?
“Starting where people are at” isn't just a fundamental of organizing, it's an organizer’s superpower.
I’ve noticed an uptick in people using the phrase, which is good. But, I sense the meaning some are applying is narrow, focused solely on where people sit on an ideological spectrum. To me, the idea of starting where people are at is broader, and includes people’s needs, motivations, sense of self and what’s possible.
Here’s my take:
First, to clarify - I'm down to "meet people where they are," but I don't intend on staying there. That's why I prefer to say we START where people are at. This is the starting point, not the finish line.
When I am meeting a new potential member, I want to understand how they see the world, and in this meeting I do not need, or expect, them to be where I am at. Not even close. I want to understand their take on why things are the way they are, and get a first read on how strongly they hold to those views. This will help me assess whether they are someone who I think could develop and awaken through the work.
This could be someone who supports raising the minimum wage and expanding public health care, and has a restrictive view on immigration. Twenty percent of US voters fall in this category. I want to be in a relationship with some of these people, and help them come to new conclusions. So I start where they are at.
When I have done deep canvassing, I have met people who shared anti-immigrant views in the beginning of our conversation. We didn’t jump down their throat, but simply started there without judgment, and often by the end of the conversation they acknowledge that they don’t know any immigrants and have never truly explored their thinking on the issue. Right there on their front porch, we create a safe space for someone to do that, often leading to new conclusions.
I sense that some people hear “starting where people are at” and think it means sitting down with a hateful “othering” person, and being okay with where they are. That is not how I think of it. I believe there have to be limits, and each organization, and each of us, has to decide where those lines are.
Self-Interest & Most Pressing Needs
I once organized on a campaign to win more affordable housing in Indiana. While a lot of people who lived on the street were part of the campaign, many others weren’t. We later learned that what they most wanted was the right to sleep on the benches at the bus station without getting a ticket. “Sure, more affordable housing would be great, but right now, this is where I am - needing a place to lay my head without fear of getting hassled by the police.”
This goes beyond urgent needs like a place to sleep tonight, to longer-term self-interest. When we meet people for the first time, their primary motivation might be fairly narrow, focused on something they want changed in their life, but with little interest in the big picture.
One of the most natural community leaders I ever worked with was named Antonio. We first met when I knocked on his door on Chicago’s westside. I was trying to find out which issues people most wanted action on.
Antonio was one of many people who wanted action on a sprawling, vacant and dilapidated building. For many residents, their primary motivation for this was the safety of children. Others had a vision of what the lot could become - a big garden, community center, or affordable housing. Antonio, who had just bought his house, was interested in how the building impacted his property values and not much more.
It's natural for someone to be motivated by the value of the largest financial investment in their life. That said, as an organizer, I want to help people deepen their connection to the community and broaden from self-interest to mutual interests. To help people along that journey, I need them to get involved. If I am only organizing people who already take a broad vision of the community, I’ll be organizing some very small meetings.
So, I start where Antonio is at, and connect his interest in property values with the fight on the big vacant building. We ran a campaign to get the building boarded up and then torn down.
Other issues started to pop, and Antonio got involved in a fight to win improvements to streets and alleys, and later on school quality.
Through all the house meetings, public meetings, door-knocking and direct actions, Antonio’s connection to the neighborhood deepened, and his motivations broadened.
A year or so later, when gentrification became a threat to the neighborhood, Antonio — who first got involved in hopes of increasing the value of his property— became a leader in challenging the forces that would do just that. He grew to become motivated by his connections with people and the place he had gotten to know and love through organizing.
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Sense of Self
Starting where people are at is not just about where a person stands on the issues. Many times, it's about where they stand on themselves. Most people we meet in organizing do not see themselves as a leader. In fact, if they are sure of anything, it is that they are not a leader.
I first met Charice in the same neighborhood as Antonio. She didn’t think she had what it took to lead. I thought differently, but I didn’t show up to our first meeting and tell her she was wrong.
I wanted to understand what was underneath this belief that she was not a leader: Personal experience? A fear of failure? Voices of self-doubt? All of the above? Through talking, listening, and reflecting, we both developed a better sense of where Charice was stuck and why.
By starting here, we were able to build a relationship from which I could agitate, encourage, and support her to move from where she was to where we both agreed she could be.
In the case of Charice, I learned that she had come to believe she was not smart enough to lead; a message she had heard over and over throughout her life. So, I worked with her to take on roles, small ones at first, to help her experience some successes that would give her the confidence to graduate to larger, more public ones. With each risk she took on, she racked up evidence that she was more than smart enough. Soon Charice had a group of people she could move to action, had joined the board of the organization and had become a leader in every sense.
Sense of What’s Possible
Starting where people are at extends to their sense of what is possible for their community. When we meet people, they are often beaten down. Having experienced little winning, they are rightly cynical.
We don’t come in and give some speech, and expect them to suddenly become true believers. We listen and try to understand the experience that led to these conclusions.
Then, we look for issues that people care deeply about and build campaigns to win, and fairly soon. After experiencing a few wins, people will come to new conclusions, not just from a great speech, but their own experience. From there, people can begin to imagine winning changes that are more structural and transformative.
To me, starting where people are at is the fundamental of all fundamentals. One worth digging into - both for its many meanings and how we do it. It includes where people sit on a political spectrum, but the idea is bigger than that. It’s about respecting where people start, just as someone once respected where we started. It's about seeing into the heart of where people are now, and then charting a path to where they could be. It is the beginning, not the end.