When speaking to a number of organisers who have been engaged in this craft for decades about why they are doing this work, a number of them said ‘we like the person organising is helping us to become’.
There are many ways to continue to grow as an organiser – action, reflection, 1on1s, writing, mentoring.
One additional route is reading. Below are some of the books, and reflections, that organisers have shared.
May it be a resource for us to share and add to.
- I’m reading We We’re Eight Years In Power by Ta-Nehesi Coates. It’s about blackness in America during the Obama years, and reflects a lot on the organising work of the civil rights movement and the organising work of the BLM movement today. While a lot of the book isn’t directly relevant to our context, his reflection on the successes and failures of the movements is wonderful. My favourite quote, about the shift in racial justice work post 9/11, is:
- “The choreography had gotten repetitive. Some outrage would be perpetrated. A march would be held. Predictable positions and platitudes exchanged. And the original offense would fade from memory. The outrage was, most often, crucial and very real – the killing of Sean Bell by the NYPD, for instance. But the lack of any substantive action, and, more, the fact that the tactics seemed to not have changed in some forty years, made many of us feel that we were not witnessing movement politics so much as a kind of cathartic performance.”
Currently reading Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging by Afua Hirsch. Not reading specifically for organising but it does relate a little:
- Importance of story telling for the creation of a shared narrative/understanding of history.
- Hirsch believes that one of the main ways black people have been excluded is through telling stories about Britain that promote a white/colour-blind version of history. When the reality is that “British history is the multiracial, interracial story of a nation interdependent on trade, cultural influence and immigration from Africa, India, Central and East Asia, and other regions and continents populated by people who are not white, and before that, invasion by successive waves of European tribes most of whom, had the concept of whiteness existed at the time, would not have fitted into it either.”
- I’m thinking that through creating diverse alliances and encouraging public storytelling, we help create a richer and more realistic understanding of British history and citizenship.
I’m reading Nicholas Nickleby because I go through Dickens phases and this is one of them… It is remarkable how important the same things were then as they are now,– precarious pay, lack of housing, dependency on others (and on the malevolence of others, as well as on their kindness). I also like Dickens because of the sense of London which is still so similar. I like Dickens’ anger and clear sightedness about the world he lived in.
I’m currently reading the ‘Politics of Jesus’ by John Howard Yoder to give deeper Christian theological learning for my work with churches and organising in Nottingham.
Imperium by Robert Harris – a fascinating study of power (as all Robert Harris novels are). Richard Weaver also really enjoys Robert Harris’ novels, as they talk about the importance of never having permanent friends or enemies.
What happened – Hilary Clinton
- The importance of testimony. Clinton writes about an interaction with a community organising group, from the perspective of a politician being acted on. The testimonies were from parents that had lost children due to guns. After she heard those personal stories, and committed to help, she kept the issues at the top of her agenda even though they were unpopular and lost her a lot of support from key supporters including police.
- How to recover, when you don’t win. She talks about how she got through the first months, feeling scared that she’d let everyone down. There’s a whole chapter which is basically her crying, walking, doing deep breathing and cuddling small children.
- Personal relationships are everything. Clinton writes that Putin has personally disliked her for decades; they had many clashes when she was secretary of state and she knew when she decided to run that he might try to sabotage her. She feels that this is partly because he doesn’t like women disagreeing with him.
- The press love a scandal, and citizens have to learn to work the press, and be the press.
- Reputations are brittle.
- I am reading ‘Team of Rivals’ by Doris Kearns Goodwin, which is about Abraham Lincoln and his contemporaries. I was prompted to read it having got hooked on the ‘Presidential’ podcast, which has an episode on each of the US Presidents. Lots of lessons about leadership, and particularly on collective leadership and effective team-working. (Richard Weaver also read and enjoyed this).
- I have also read ‘Nye’, a biography of Aneurin Bevan (Welsh Labour MP and Minister who created the NHS) by Nick Thomas Symonds immediately followed by ‘Citizen Clem’, a biography of Clement Attlee (PM of the post-war Labour government of which Bevan was a part) by John Bew. Both cut their teeth at community level as union/Labour Party organisers in South Wales and Limehouse. Totally contrasting personalities and styles of leadership (and did not get on!) but arguably neither would have accomplished what they did without the other. Many stories of struggle against injustice, and the importance of institutions as engines of social change for the working class.
- Finally, I commend the new(ish) James Franco film, ‘In Dubious Battle’, based on John Steinbeck’s novel of the same name (naturally I commend the book too). It tells the story of two organisers trying to organise migrant fruit-pickers in Depression-era California. Both book and film are full of organising lessons (bad and good), and we used an extract of the film on National Training recently to teach about self interest.
- Rabbi Sharon Brous’s piece on why Jewish communities should support calls for reparations for African Americans. A beautiful example of rooting justice work in and from communities’ history, theology and traditions.
- ‘Dethroning Mammon’ by Justin Welby. Read this last year and we studied it as a church house group. The book and the study questions are very good for reflecting on money and materialism and how Christians should respond. It was the Archbishop’s Lent book so will have likely been read and studied by many Anglicans involved in church leadership in the UK. So a good one to read for that reason too as we seek to engage Anglicans in organising.
- Finally, would recommend ‘The Underground Railroad’ by Colson Whitehead – a fantastic novel – and a difficult read at times about slavery in the deep south of the US, those who directly experienced it, those who struggled against it, and those who sustained this great injustice, that seems to still have so many resonances in the present in attitudes in the US and elsewhere towards people of colour.
- ‘Running with the Kenyans’ by Adharanand Finn – a joyous read about the joys of running
Atul Gawande – The Checklist Manifesto. This relates to us organising with volunteers. Busy people that are constantly working through a balance between public and private/scheduling and also the natural rhythms of life. I am also thinking how, with that in mind, how do we continue to be effective with the capacity we do have?
- I am reading the ‘Voyage of the Beagle’ by Charles Darwin. Darwin describes how confused he is about the disappearance of massive mammals from Patagonia. He cannot find a cause in nature – no change in the climate or disease. Yuval Hariri’s book ‘Sapiens’ says it was humans that led the the major extinctions of large animals throughout the planet. Darwin cannot see that the cause of this mass death is him. It reminded me of the story in the Bible when Nathan tells King David a parable about how a rich man swindled a poor man out of his one lamb. David is outraged and swears to avenge the poor man. Nathan then says ‘you are the rich man!’ because David had Uriah killed in battle to take his wife. So too it is with organising: to learn, we need to run with others and learn from mentors to understand our blind spots.
- I am also reading ‘Sacred Strategies – transforming synagogues from Functional to Visionary’ by Isa Aron et al. It is looking at a set of habits and practices from synagogues in the USA that led to mission-driven, deep leadership development and a strong flow of outward-facing justice work.