Back to the Future: Organizing the “Old-Fashioned” Way

Photo credit: Julie Bennet, courtesy of Alabama Arise

There’s no doubt that new technologies have opened up new approaches and opportunities to engage in grassroots organizing. For example, I remember phone banking when you had to dial each number by hand, wait four to six rings until the answering machine picked up, listen to the outgoing message, and then finally leave a message. It was slow, tedious work. Predictive dialers have made that work so much easier. No hand-dialing, no lists to manage and no voicemail at all. Today you can just wait until the dialer finds a live person for you to talk with, making the process so much more efficient and, ironically, more personal.

But for every way in which technology makes organizing easier, there is another way in which technology can become a facile substitute for real organizing. Posting on Facebook is not organizing; sending an email to a list of 10,000 people you don’t know will not turn people out to your event and tweeting alone will not help to build a new grassroots leader. The basis of organizing remains grounded in the process of building one-to-one relationships between the organizer and the person with whom that organizer is trying to engage. While technology can enhance the organizer’s capacity to communicate more quickly and efficiently with more people, it is not a substitute for developing a human connection and an authentic relationship, person-by-person, over time.

Advocates in two otherwise very different states – Alabama and New York – are actively demonstrating this principle as part of their work on the Center’s Consumer Voices for Innovation 2.0 Grant Program (CVI 2.0). CVI 2.0 funds advocacy organizations in seven states to build an engaged base of consumers to advocate for policies and programs that expand how the health care sector addresses three social and economic drivers of health: food security, housing security and transportation. Advocates in Alabama are focusing on food security, while advocates in New York are addressing housing, but both organizations are grounding their organizing efforts firmly in local communities and concentrating on building relationships with individuals in those communities.

Alabama Arise has teamed up with the Bay Area Women Coalition in the Mobile area to enhance the ability of the health system to address food security. “Alabama Medicaid is at a moment of transformation,” said Jim Carnes, Policy Director at Arise. “We are moving from a statewide fee-for-service system of primary care to a regionally-based nonprofit coordinated care system with quality incentives. We are trying to create a model of collaboration between the newly-formed regional network in the Mobile area, area food banks, and community residents to enhance Medicaid’s ability to improve nutrition.”

Arise and their partners are building that collaboration by starting in Trinity Gardens, a low-income, predominantly African American neighborhood of approximately 2,000 people. “We have had five community meetings in the neighborhood,” said Pres Harris, Organizing Director at Arise. “We’ve reached over 100 people through those meetings, we’ve identified some potential leaders, and we will focus next on working with the community to prioritize all of the ideas that residents generated.” This is solid, “old-fashioned” organizing, firmly grounded in a sense of place and driven by relationship development and community engagement.

In New York, CVI 2.0 grantee Make the Road New York (MRNY) is a very different kind of organization. MRNY works predominantly with Spanish-speaking immigrants in Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, Long Island and Westchester. MRNY combines direct services with organizing, providing people with legal and survival services to educate, organize and empower individuals to move local and even statewide policy change.

For their CVI 2.0 project, MRNY organizers are working to expand their Community Health Worker (CHW) program more broadly within New York City’s public hospital system. CHWs conduct home visits for children and adults with asthma, providing instruction to parents and identifying triggers in the home, like dust and mold. These CHWs will help to build a base of community members who instinctively understand the connection between housing and health because of their lived experience. “Community members who walk through our door seeking help in making their housing environment safer or needing assistance managing their asthma are then connected to an organizing committee,” said Becca Telzak, Director of Health Programs at MRNY. “As people become more engaged, they become our strongest advocates for larger policy solutions to the problems that impact their lives.”

Both Arise and Make the Road New York make extensive use of technology. For example, they are both active on Twitter and they both use sophisticated database systems. However, this technology has been embraced to serve their organizing, not the other way around. That organizing work remains grounded in very personal relationship building. This approach is time consuming, but it is also time-tested. We are excited to see what our partners in Alabama and New York will be able to accomplish over the next two years!

This is the final blog in a series about the Center’s Consumer Voices for Innovation (CVI 2.0) program. Click here to see the first blog in the series, and here to see the second.