Come Together: A Community Organizing How-To
By Mikki Halpin
There’s a saying in community organizing that if you want to be an activist, walk out your front door, go to your neighbor’s house, and start talking. It sounds simple, but that’s basically it. Community organizing is some of the most hands-on, sustainable, results-oriented kind of work you can do to change the world, and you can totally do it. Here’s how:
Define community any way you want to. Maybe for you, “community” literally is the people on your block who want to get composting collection started. Maybe it’s a citywide group that wants to work to reopen ERs in neighborhoods that lack them. Maybe it’s your friends on Twitter, or the people who respond to your Facebook appeal. Or a bunch of strangers who come together based on a shared interest and a great idea. Whoever you feel comfortable with and share inspiration and goals with is your community.
What’s your big picture issue? Pick one thing, whether it’s reproductive rights, food insecurity, immigrant safety, housing, war, water, environment, prison reform—choose something that speaks to you. You can go broad here.
Do your homework. Look into your issue, especially on the local level. What are the needs and challenges for success in that cause? Who is already doing good work? Talk to people. Go to some meetings and learn. What takes something big like “abortion” and turns it into a manageable issue to tackle?
Set a goal. Find one thing that could make a difference; don’t decide on your own (see above). Does your local food pantry need an iPad to better track donations? Can you get the person in your state legislature who keeps introducing transphobic laws out of office? Is there an abortion clinic that needs escorts? Or a hospital in Syria that needs $40K to keep operating for one year?
Enlist others. This is the knocking on doors part! (You can also use email.) And this is when it’s helpful to have a discrete goal. Asking someone to help you flyer for a fundraiser for 20 hospital beds or set up training for the local precinct to learn to deal with citizens who have mental health issues is a lot more likely to get a response than, “I want to do something about Aleppo.” People want to do good things and they like to be involved in good things. You are doing them a favor. Let your passion ignite theirs.
Do your thing. It will be frustrating. Bands will flake on fundraisers. You will have to go to your local councilperson 20 times to be taken seriously. You will begin to hate everyone who stands in your way. Keep going. Persistence is how you turn impossibilities into possibilities.
Do another thing. In the course of your fund drive, escort program set up, legislative advocacy, or whatever you do, you’ll see more ways and places you can help. Keep working on the local level but also look into ways you can make structural change on your issue. If you started out doing a pen pal program with juveniles in prison, maybe next you want to look at the way sentencing laws in your state are affecting juveniles, or advocate for guards in juvenile institutions to get better mental-health training.
For me, working within my community (which I define in different ways at different times) is the kind of activism that I find the most rewarding and sustainable. If you’re new to “activism” as a thing, it’s one of the best ways to get started. You can totally change the world—just walk out the door.
Mikki Halpin is the author of It’s Your World: If You Don’t Like It, Change It, and runs the Action Now newsletter, tinyletter.com/actionnow.
Illustrated by Nicole Miles
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