Say What You Mean: Creative Chant Development

Lots of times, organizations will put weeks or months of effort into mobilizations and actions, preparing for different scenarios and developing leadership, but on the day of the action we use the first chants that come into our heads and try to force a fit. This makes the go-to chant at so many protests: “Hey hey, ho ho [something’s] got to go.” This chant lasts the whole protest, doesn’t communicate our message well (and it’s the first and most-reinforced message anyone hears!), doesn’t communicate what we want, overshadows the good planning we did for all the other pieces, and ends up draining the energy and enthusiasm of participants.

I believe that spending even a half-hour in chant development can transform the feeling of your protest into something vibrant, fun, energizing and on-message.

To develop great chants, we need to start with our message. At the time of this writing, there is a political effort to ram through approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline, so let’s go with that. Talk about your message as a group and write it across the top of a big piece of paper. You can have multiple messages.


The Keystone XL Pipeline would sell off the environment, our neighborhoods, our health and safety to fuel our oil addiction. It’s time for solidarity on a massive scale and direct action to stop it in its tracks!

It’s really important you start with your message, no matter how complex, because if you don’t you are not likely to clearly convey what you’re fighting for.

Now, we’ll take the key words (and synonyms) from these messages and write them on the left hand side of the paper. Let’s also include words that are related to these key words and ones that are important to our organization, committee, campaign and culture.

Let people free associate words/ phrases that rhyme with any of them. You can always add more words to the original list. Encourage creativity and stretching rhymes! Things that make people laugh should definitely end up in some chants. The more words you get out of the brainstorm, the more raw material you have for great chants) For example:

Keystone: (this is a hard one to start with!) flea-prone, free phone, unknown, re-grown, re-sewn, kneebone, tree cone

KXL: excel, Nextel, repel

Ooh! Just noticed that KXL looks like “X-tra Large”—let’s riff on that:

Extra-large: oil barge, Marge, sarge, What’s extra-large? Well, it’s an Extra-large problem: topple ‘em, optimum, cobble ‘em (together)

Oil: boil, coil, doily, foil, goil (girl), loyal, royal, spoil, woild (world).

Note that for this one, we’re basically going through the alphabet and trying letters with the “oil” suffix. And stretching it a bit.

Pipeline: not the right time, lifeline, nighttime, fight mine,

Trans-Canada: Plan spanning the, hams spamming ya, The Man’s plannin’ the, hands fanning the (flames) Now go off of this last one—playing their games, taking names, looking for fame, we can’t settle for more of the same!

Lobbyist: hobbyist, robbery twist, floppiest, gloppy kiss

Politicians: gone fishin’, on a mission, wishin’, kissin’, something’s missin’

Representatives: tentative, anal retentive

Senate: win it, spin it, end it

Politics: dirty tricks, flicks, make me sick

Environment: liar sent, a mired tent, tired and spent, tryin’ to pay rent, timely sent

Neighborhoods: a bill of goods, a waiver could, should, would, save our woods

Health: wealth, stealth, filth

Safety: don’t mistake me, it’s chafing, wakey-wakey

Addiction: affliction, restriction, conscription, prescription, good diction

The People: equal, sequel

Organize: eyes, prize, flies, ties, whys, size

Fight Back: under attack, catching flack, move from the bottom to the top of the stack

Rights: fights, nights, tights, lights

Direct action: gain traction, satisfaction, fraction

Just put everything up, without judgment. Next, break up into small teams and give each group a short amount of time (20 minutes or less) to combine these words and phrases into chants. They can always add more words. The only rule is, when we combine these rhymes into chants, we want them to reflect our message(s).

Bring everybody back and perform!

Please feel free and encouraged to use any of these rhymes for your own actions.

Here are my contributions:

(Style: Rhymes-within-the-rhyme)

Keystone politicians

Only loyal to oil

Listen boils and goils

They’re tryin’ to spoil the woild

But we’ll

Foil their plans

Stop ‘em with our bare hands


Continental solidarity

Take a stand!


(Style: the classic couplet—2 line chant)

KXL’s got an extra-large problem

100,000 activists

Are gonna topple’ em

(I tried to get a little too clever with this last one and have it be “100,000 activists are optin’ in to topple ‘em” but that gave no space to take a breath. Breathing=important).

Working or Winning?

Four years ago today, an amazing organizer passed on from this physical existence to reside in the hearts and minds of the many people he touched in his lifetime. Shel Trapp, co-founder of National People’s Action, was schooled in the old Alinsky organizing tradition, and while he kept the focus on concrete change, he cast aside the old bravado and ego for humility and a love for deep connection with people. He was so focused on grassroots leadership that in his neighborhood organizing days he had a policy that any staff whose name and words appeared in the media was fired, because they were stealing an opportunity from the organization’s membership to speak on the issues.

I met Trapp at a training ten years ago when I was considering leaving organizing. I had several years of spinning wheels behind me on a bunch of what felt like perpetual campaigns that barely progressed. After several days of impressive and impactful training, I asked Trapp if we could have breakfast together before the day’s session began. I was hoping to soak up some of his decades of wisdom. But instead of telling me things, he mostly asked questions:

What makes you angry?

Why are you an organizer?

Do you want to be working on issues, or winning on issues?

This last one was the most surprising. It was his response to me mentioning my frustration about the lack of progress on our different campaigns. Trapp followed it up by asking:

What would happen if your group picked their most important campaign right now, and went all in?

In trying to address all of the problems facing our communities, we can spread ourselves so thin that no campaign gets further than inching along. The decision to take on too much actually becomes a detriment to the community. Before, no one was working on the issue. Now someone is, but the campaign is not going anywhere. Now there is a promise of something, but the promise is not being fulfilled, which can really contribute to distrust of community organizing and burnout on campaigns. This does not mean that an organization can’t be multi-issue, or that there aren’t important issues that take years to win, but is rather a reminder that overcommitting has consequences.

I came back from the training, and sat down with my co-organizer and the member leadership team, and told them what Trapp had said. We went around the table, and each person named their priority campaign. Amazingly, we had consensus: our campaign to get the Rhode Island Department of Labor to investigate and enforce wage theft regardless of immigration status. We dove in. Less than two months later, we won all of our demands for this campaign in a public meeting with the Director and 200 folks form the community. But that’s another story for another day.

Thank you, Trapp, for your beautiful example and for your lessons that live on.

How to Get Big Results in Minutes*

*(every day, over years)

Asthmatic as a child, small for my age and kind of clumsy, I learned early on the story that I was not built for physical activities. I was an easy target for bullies. Even before I knew what organizing was, I daydreamed of a large group of people coming together to confront the bullies and change the power dynamic.

I was in 5th grade when I was diagnosed with Neurally Mediated Syncope, which means that my brain would sometimes neglect to tell my heart to pump and I’d pass out in public places, which gave me a fear of my own body. I felt that my mind and body were separate; my mind was the real me and it was trapped in this thing that could betray me at any time. The fainting episodes continued into my twenties. One time I passed out in a crowded theater during a play, and fell on top of someone I didn’t know. I’m told that she screamed, “Oh my God, he’s dead!” and the play stopped and the lights came on. EMTs soon rushed in. “I’m sorry I ruined your play,” I called out as I came to and they carried me horizontally out the door. At least I wasn’t on a date at the time.

I had thought that bullying would stop when one became an adult, but I saw that it was at least as, if not more, frequent with even graver consequences. In the adult world, bullies often have systemic power supporting them, and titles like Boss or Governor. I learned about community organizing and saw that my childhood daydream could be realized by entering into a community of fighters for justice that spanned all the continents and has existed practically since the dawn of our species.

A critical moment for me as an organizer was learning that anger could be a tool—that when we channel anger at injustice into the work, it can provide us with tremendous energy resources. But when anger is the daily guiding force, it can start to spill over beyond the point where it’s productive. I found myself angry at the injustice heaped on the community; angry that my friends were being deported or forced to leave the country; angry that for all our victories, another bully was right around the corner and the bigger systems weren’t changing; angry that the coalitions we were a part of were full of once-idealistic people who mistrusted each other, criticized each other, and competed with each other. As an executive director, I was becoming a person I didn’t recognize. I was frequently short with my coworker. I felt anxious all the time, and had trouble falling asleep and staying asleep. If I grabbed a bite out after a long day, my body would sometimes reject the food so violently I would find myself laying on the restaurant bathroom’s cold tile, pressing my face against it trying to cool myself down.

For years in organizing, I was making small unhealthy choices. I was sitting all the time—sitting in the car driving somewhere, sitting at my desk on the phone or typing up grants and reports, sitting with people in meetings at the office or in their homes. Even our civil disobedience campaign was a sit-in! I grabbed food between meetings—even though I enjoyed cooking, years went by where my refrigerator held nothing more than the leftover slices of takeout pizza and some ketchup. My waistline kept expanding and I went through several rounds of maxing out my pants and needing to upsize. By the time I was 34, I had high blood pressure, stomach problems, and frequent sharp chest pain, not to mention a whole host of other yucky problems. There wasn’t any particular event that signaled the change. Rather, the cumulative effect of years of making bad decisions (or just not paying attention to the decisions I was making) had made a significant impact. Even a couple years after leaving the intense day-to-day organizing routine, the symptoms stayed with me.

I went to a naturopathic doctor, and she wrote me a prescription for running—10 minutes a day, at least 6 days a week. I had always heard that you need to exercise for at least 30 minutes a day for it to have any effect, and I felt I didn’t have 30 minutes a day to spare, nor could I imagine exercising for 30 minutes straight. But 10 minutes seemed like so little it was hard to make excuses. “You need to start right away,” the doctor told me. “Run for your life. Run for your daughter.” It was January, in New England, which meant snow, ice and temperatures rarely above freezing.
The first day, I tried to run. I got less than a quarter mile before I was sucking wind, hurting and having to slow to a walk. The next day, I tried to run/walk/run, and after a half-mile I was dry heaving. But I kept at it, the doctor’s words echoing in my head.

Run for your life. Run for your daughter.

I made a pact with myself that at the very least, I would put on my sneakers and step outside every day. Once there, it felt silly to not, at the very least, move a little.

I went back to the doctor six months later. Inches had dropped from my waist, and my blood pressure was at normal levels. I entered my first 5K. I kept at it, running every day through the below-zero temps and snowstorms of the Polar Vortex of Winter 2013. Last month, I hiked a Presidential Traverse–23 miles with 9000 feet of elevation gain over 10 of New Hampshire’s highest mountains in two days. I have a new possible. Still, most mornings, before the sun comes up, I only run for about 10 minutes. But, adding it up over the past 1¾ years, I have run between 600 and 700 miles.

Tiny actions, even ones that seem miniscule or insignificant, add up quickly to produce big effects, for good or bad. Where can we weed out the microaggressions we commit against ourselves, the sarcastic remarks, the bad habits, and replace them with microprogressions, appreciations, and healthy habits that are incremental steps towards the world we believe is possible?

For some brilliant reflections on tiny habits, check out Leo Babauta’s blog

This post is the first in a series of posts about minimalist organizing–wherein minimalism is defined as “lifting up the essential.” It will be an exploration of how microprogressions in the right direction can yield big changes, and how understanding our role within an interconnected network can allow our work to be more effective. I look forward to your thoughts, suggestions and questions!   

Stopping Violence With People Power

Over the past decade or so in the US, increasing attention has been turned to where our food comes from, and organic, non-GMO and farm-fresh food have been highlighted as the best options for our bodies and our communities. Similarly, students during the 1990s built a strong campaign to replace sweatshop-produced goods in their campus stores with fair labor-produced alternatives.

What if that same consciousness was expanded to all our possessions and all the services we use? We would see that many industries rely on unpaid and exploited labor as a given for their market price.

Landscaping is one such industry, made more so by its invisibility. Businesses often have their properties landscaped during non-business hours, and homeowners often have their yards tended when they are not home. The contract is signed, the owner is paid, the work is done, and the workers are never seen. In marketing-speak, this is touted as convenience, but it serves to disconnect the customer from thinking about who is doing the work, how they are treated, and how they got such a good “bargain.”

Here’s one story about the kind of exploitation that goes on when “no one’s watching” and how workers fought back:

Michael owned a landscaping company that he operated out of his home with small crews of workers. He was also a gun enthusiast, a fact he liked to share frequently, and a gambling man. After losing a bunch of money at the casino, Michael had delayed paying his workers as long as he could with excuses (“The client’s late in paying me. I promise I’ll have the money for next week”), but after several weeks, when the workers told him they couldn’t wait any longer, he pulled a gun on them and told them to never come back.

The workers had waited long enough and now needed their pay immediately; they couldn’t wait for a Department of Labor investigation when there was already a 2-year backlog of cases. So we decided to take action. We would confront him at his house, and invite a couple of ministers to wear their collars and accompany us. I hoped the sight of them would prevent a shooting. If not, at least they could deliver Last Rites.

Our group gathered before sunrise to drive together to Michael’s house. We knew from the workers when he usually left the garage, so the plan was to block his driveway until he paid. It usually doesn’t more than 45 minutes to get anywhere in Rhode Island, but Michael’s house, deep in a rural part of the state, was about as long as a drive as one could have without crossing state lines. The sun was coming up as we arrived and lined up at the foot of his driveway.

Like clockwork, Michael’s pickup started to pull out just before 7am. He stopped a few yards away from us, and began yelling. Then he saw the ministers and got quiet. We didn’t know if Michael went to church or not, but in a state as culturally Catholic as Rhode Island, we were betting that the sight of ministers in their collars standing with his workers would be enough of an unexpected combination for him that he would freeze up, confused. When it became clear that we weren’t moving, he climbed down from his truck. He pulled out a checkbook and paid in full. We drove away into the sun.

Direct action is not always so quick and easy, but home visits have a tendency to be very successful, because they tear down a delicately-hanging curtain between job and home. On the job, an exploitative employer has all kinds of self-rationalizations for their behavior: “It’s not personal, it’s business,” “I’ve got to look out for number 1,” “These people should be grateful they even have a job.” Conversely, their home is their personal castle where they are vulnerable and surrounded by people who have a different image of them entirely: provider, neighbor with the nice house and the cute dog, parent, churchgoer. They never expect these two worlds to meet, and when they do, they are thrown so off balance that they want to do whatever it takes to close the curtain again quickly. This gives the protesters incredible power that can best be harnessed by having a clear, concrete demand: “We are here for X. When we get it, we will leave.” But it goes beyond just one transaction—once the curtain has come down one time, it could happen again, anytime, anywhere, and the internalization of this by the exploiter can lead to a permanent shift in the balance of power.

How Bushwhacking is Like Organizing

I am very interested in how community organizers can build a life in which organizing and movement-building is a long-term sustainable and healthy pursuit that integrates well with other aspects of our lives—family, restoration and relaxation, and lifelong-learning, to name a few. I have long enjoyed getting out and hiking in nature as an escape, a shift in consciousness and just plain fun, but recently have begun to think about how I can use these trips as growth opportunities. A couple months ago, while there was still snow at elevation, I took a field class with Philip of on off-trail navigation (AKA bushwhacking) in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. On this trip, the goal was to climb a mountain that has no trails leading to the top, so we had to use maps, compasses and awareness to find our way, sometimes climbing, sometimes crawling, through the thick spruces. When I went on my first bushwhack last year, it was like being introduced to hiking for the first time and opened up a whole new world of what was possible. It was a similar rush to the feeling of being on the founding team of a brand-new organization. The lessons I learned felt immediately applicable to organizing:

1) Prepare to the best of your ability, knowing you can never know it all

What you are doing is serious, and you better be prepared. Use your experience, the experience of others, and the best information you can gather to have a very good sense of what you’re getting into. Ask yourself: “What will I do if…?” for each of the potential scenarios/problems that your preparation tells you could occur. But don’t get analysis paralysis. You have to get moving.

2) Maps lie

On this particular trip, our map showed the wrong elevation for a landmark peak, showing it as higher than the one we were climbing when in reality it is lower. If we were relying only on sighting that peak as an indicator of where we were, we would have been very confused. Close investigation of the map’s contour lines showed that it would have been impossible for the peak to be as high as it was stated to be. Maps also don’t show flooded areas or road closings. Some of these are human errors, some are a result of the fact that landscapes, both environmental and socio-political are always changing. We must be nimble, highly engaged and aware of what is going on around us and be ready to respond to it.

3) Know when you are going off trail, and why

Going off-trail is not about wandering around aimlessly, it is about choosing to make your own path, maybe a path never traveled before, to get to your goal instead of walking the established path. While this option is much harder, you will experience things unavailable to those on the well-worn trail. Whether on a mountain or in a direct action, throughout the day there are things you are sure of, things you are reasonably sure of, and things that are great unknowns. Know what and where the unknowns may present themselves, and you’ll be better prepared to deal with them. You choose when is the time to go off-trail. During direct actions, the exact response of the opposition is unknown. So do everything possible to have all the rest as tight as possible so that when you get to that moment your group is strong, and the off-trail moment won’t feel out of control.

4) Have a contingency plan, feel stronger (even without using it)

On this bushwhacking trip, we knew that if we became hopelessly turned around, we could orient our compasses due west and hit a road within a couple of hours which would get us back to the area where we parked. The chances of needing this information were very slim, but having that option in my back pocket emboldened me enough so that I volunteered to lead the group for a while. In organizing, encourage people to ask the question “What will we do if…?” even for some really far-out scenarios, and plan your response together. Fear of the unknown is the greatest barrier in organizing direct actions and having a contingency plan for disasters allows the group to act with confidence and power.

See you off-trail!


How to Develop Leadership in 2 Simple Steps (Part 2)

Step 2: Take action.

Shel Trapp, my organizing mentor, used to say, “Talking doesn’t cook the rice.” Once you’ve had the conversation about hopes, dreams, and vision, it’s essential to put it into action. Otherwise, organizers are no different from politicians who make pretty promises of a better tomorrow which they never deliver. Action is the lifeblood of an organization.

The action that supports leadership development can be divided into two categories: actions to follow-up on decisions made (such as connecting newer members with mentors, providing training opportunities, etc.) and collective direct action that confronts powerful decision -makers face-to-face. Since the first is pretty straight forward, let’s focus how to move into direct action. There can be a tendency to get analysis paralysis—a never-ending desire for just a little more information or clarity before taking action. This often has its roots in fear of action. Sometimes that fear comes from members, and sometimes that fear comes from the organizer not wanting to make a mistake. Organizers need to create a safe space in which members can voice those fears and decide collectively what they want to do about them. Frontline communities face very real threats and taking action is not without consequences. The purpose of talking about it is not to dismiss those fears but rather to integrate thoughtful responses to them into the action strategy.

There’s a simple question for combating analysis paralysis: “What will we do if…?” As a group, we can make a list of our concerns and then brainstorm answers to this question for each one:

What will we do if…

  • the police come?
  • neighbors get angry with us?
  • nobody’s home when visit?
  • they say “yes” to our demands but then don’t follow through?
  • they refuse to open the door?
  • they refuse to engage with us and just shout?
  • they make threats?

After brainstorming possible responses, we role-play though the direct action a bunch of times, practicing the different scenarios. I believe that storytelling is the most powerful tool in an organizer’s toolbox, but it is closely followed by the role-play. Role-playing difficult scenarios builds confidence in ourselves and each other, clarifies the action plan thus reducing fear of the unknown, develops the quick-thinking reflex, helps us to be nimble, and builds community as we learn together. We can never foresee every possibility but we can imagine a lot of them, and the more we are prepared for, the more mental energy we’ll have to make decisions around an unexpected development.

These two steps are a continuous cycle: talk-vision-scheme-plan, take action, evaluate and decide next steps, carry them out. Repeat.

How to Develop Leadership in 2 Simple Steps (Part 1)

The previous post focused on how leadership is not innate, but rather developed, nurtured and practiced. So how do we do that? Welcome to “How to Develop Leadership In 2 Simple Steps.” I’ll devote a post to each step.

Today, Step One: Talk.

Community organizations’ staff need to devote significant time to frequently have one-to-one conversations with member-leaders about the organization and about their participation as individuals within the organization. If you want the organization to be truly grassroots, this needs to be one of your top priorities.

In these conversations, several things are happening:

  • The relationship is being deepened through trust.
  • You get to understand leaders’ dreams, vision and motivations and how they complement those of other leaders in the organization.
  • You are developing communication channels for transparency.
  • The weight of difficult decisions is shared among many shoulders.

I can’t think of a single significant struggle as a community organizer or director that benefitted from me being stuck in my head as a lone wolf problem-solver. Every time, talking with members made the difference, regardless of the issue. Funding. Low participation. Interpersonal conflicts. Campaign strategy. Media strategy. Threats made against the organization. Everything. Having these one-to-one conversations about difficult issues means that when folks come together in a meeting, everyone is much more prepared to tackle the problem at a deep level. This means that folks are not just being consulted or “checked-in-with” but rather are equipped and prepared to lead the discussion and the crafting of the solutions. They are developing leadership by being in the thick of the hard work of organization-building, and, through having a nuanced understanding of how the organization works, grow to trust it deeply and are more likely to stick with the organization in difficult times.

Besides problem solving, it’s important to regularly have one-to-one conversations focused on leaders and members thoughtfully evaluating their leadership. We’ll often start with some pretty broad questions, like:

  • Who in the organization do you most look up to as a leader? Why? What do they do that you want to do?
  • Where do you want the organization to be at the end of this year? Where do you want to be? What do you want to have accomplished?

To help guide the conversation, I bring a single sheet of paper with a checklist of ways, specific to our organization, that one can take leadership: from neighborhood outreach to being on a national leadership team for a major direct action; from facilitating a meeting to mentoring a new member. Together we look at what they’ve already done and what they’d like to learn how to do. The list is not exhaustive and if the member has totally different ideas about the kind of leadership they’d like to take that’s great—this is an opportunity for them to reflect on their gifts and passions and how they can use them in service to the movement. That’s how Cristina, one of Fuerza Laboral’s co-founders, became the director of our Mobile Theater Brigade which traveled around the state and even performed at some national conferences, using theater as a popular education tool for community organizing. She had the passion; the organization gave her the platform.

Remember: members and leaders of the organization are not “your” members or “your” leaders. You are partners in building a better world. So talk like partners, and share both the work and the dreams.

Born Leaders Don’t Exist

I draw a lot of inspiration for organizing from stories, including stories that aren’t about organizing. There is a Zen lesson that has long impacted me: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill them.” This shocking teaching is meant to illustrate that if we get too attached to our idea of what the Buddha is, we may miss the real thing when we experience it in unexpected places.

I think we do this sometimes with the way we talk about leadership, especially the idea of a “born leader.” I don’t believe that born leaders exist, and furthermore, when we refer to some people as born leaders we are discouraging and missing out on leadership from folks who could do amazing things if given the opportunity.

Often, the people who are called born leaders are powerful speakers. They have a narrative that holds your attention, a voice that draws you in, and an eloquent and deep analysis. They have charisma. But frequently, they are not interested in developing other leaders–it’s all about them. They act as lone wolves in a movement.

Real leadership is cultivated, learned and practiced. Of the most powerful community leaders I’ve had the chance to work with, not one fit the description of a born leader. Some had held leadership roles before but many had never “led” anybody. None walked into our organization off the street and immediately wowed everyone with their “born leaderness.” If any pattern existed, it was much more one of leaders emerging slowly through increased participation and deepening relationships. For example:

Shirley, a great-grandmother who had never organized or protested before, sat in the back of the room for a bunch of meetings, making skeptical comments. She went on to commit civil disobedience against the labor-law-breaking factory where she had worked, getting arrested, jailed, and appear on the front page of the local paper in handcuffs in the process and later, directly confronted the US Secretary of Labor in a face-to-face meeting on the uselessness of “worker protections” that have no staff to enforce them.

Vicente told us, “I won’t come to protests, but I‘ll paint for you.” He painted our office in beautiful, vibrant colors, quietly spending lots of time there. Many months later, he went on to take part in a national-level multi-day organizer training and led dozens of coworkers on a direct action at the home of his employer, the owner of a temporary employment agency who was systematically not paying her workers.

Ana came to our organization looking for assistance with filing a discrimination claim with the State Discrimination Commission. She lost the case and disappeared. More than a year later, she came back to take a leadership course with us and grew steadily in her involvement and boldness, from bursting in on legislators who refused to meet with us to leading national-level direct actions with hundreds of participants, and becoming our organization’s President.

I could go on and on.

The traditional markers of impressive leadership matter little to me when I’m working to build a community team. The fact that someone speaks pretty, or has fantastic political analysis, or is camera-ready, or has held positions of leadership before, doesn’t make them a leader. What I look for is the following:

  • Do they build real relationships with people?
  • Do people trust them? What do they do to build that trust/show that they are trustworthy?
  • Do they do what they say they will? (See above: trust)
  • Does injustice make them angry?
  • Are they unsatisfied with accepting the status quo?
  • Do they have a vision of a better world?
  • Are they a good listener? Do they connect what they hear to what they say?
  • Do they treat their community with love?
  • Do they create joy with their presence?

The next few blog posts will focus on grassroots leadership development and some specific tools to make it happen in our organizations. Email me (see the Contact page) if you have specific questions you’d like me to address.


“I want to be the kind of person who’s impossible to steal from.”Utah Phillips

The stories on this website are uncopyrighted. That means you should feel free to share them, copy them, print them and tell them without asking my permission. These are not my stories. They’re our stories. I’ve been lucky to have been a part of some of them, or have people who have been a part of them share them with me, and now I share them with you. The whole idea of this site is that the victory stories of organized people need to be shared more widely.

Whenever I’ve been a participant in a story, I try to make that clear. Whenever the story comes from someone else, I make that clear as well. I suppose someone out there could try to tell or sell these stories as their “own” stories, but I’m not really that worried about it. I think it’s much more likely that uncopyrighting will remove the friction from people sharing/adapting/combining these stories in a way that respects them and the people involved and weaves a connective thread through similar experiences of different people(s).

If you like what you read and want to link people to this site, that’s great. If you can envision a space where oral storytelling could be of use and enjoyment to your community, and you want to have me come tell stories or lead a storytelling workshop, also great.  I would be very happy to spend more of my working time telling stories. But more than anything else, I’d like to see us all tell more stories to and with each other.

For more on uncopyrighting, (I found this inspirational and a strong case for doing it) see Leo Babauta of’s thoughts here.

A Society of Spontaneous Action

What would it look like if organizing was so internalized in a society that people spontaneously took direct action in the moment of the injustice? What if this was so widespread that unscrupulous power-holders felt compelled to do right because of the imminent accountability?

I understand that there are places in the world where this is much closer to being a reality than it is in the U.S. I wish I had a lot more stories like this one to tell—a brief glimpse into the beauty and power of such a society.

Lucy paid her workers with checks from an unregistered, phantom cleaning business that only existed to insulate the larger cleaning corporation (for whom she was the manager) from legal responsibility for violating labor law. One day, she asked a group of her workers to reapply for their jobs with “new information” or they would be fired. It was our understanding that she was mandating the workers to bring in stolen identities so that she could bill her clients for twice the number of workers than actually did the labor.

One afternoon, I got a call from Mayra, a woman in her early twenties who did not want to be complicit in this. She had heard about Fuerza Laboral on the radio and wanted to know what her options were, since Lucy had said that night was the deadline to bring the new applications. I couldn’t imagine what we could do with only a few hours before the shift started, but something in her voice compelled me to drive the 25 minutes from our office in Central Falls to her house in Providence.

I sat down at the kitchen table with her and her husband. I told her what Lucy was doing was illegal, but that labor law is so weak and departments so underfunded and overworked that no official was going to hold Lucy accountable—at least not for a long time. I explained a little about how Fuerza uses direct action, but how it really requires everyone to be prepared and agreed on tactics. Mayra was in tears over the stress of the situation and the looming job loss. Grasping for something, I suggested: if she already was set on not being complicit to Lucy’s demand, why not talk to some co-workers upon arriving and see who else agreed, to have some strength in numbers when she refused?

Well, she took it a lot farther than that. I got a call the next day from Mayra. Because of the trust other workers had in her, which she had built over time, she succeeded, in a matter of minutes, in getting the whole shift crew to have a sit-down strike, with brooms and mops across their knees, refusing to work. When Lucy came over to them and asked what was going on, Mayra said, “We know what you’re doing is illegal and none of us will do it. We’ve organized with Fuerza Laboral and they have our backs.”

Reportedly, Lucy began tearing at her hair. “Fuerza Laboral! How do they know everywhere I am?” You see, Lucy had several crews cleaning different buildings, and we had been organizing with an entirely different one for several weeks on the issue of wage theft, and had protested both Lucy’s home and went with a group of her workers to sit in the front pew at church while she received an award, sweating profusely with anticipation at what we would do. Mayra and her crew knew none of these workers—it was sheer coincidence that she called us at this particular moment. But the organizing on different fronts had saturated Lucy’s mind, and Lucy found herself continuously anxious about where her workers would show up next.

Everyone in Mayra’s crew kept their jobs without having to be complicit in Lucy’s game.  If we had a week to prepare in our organization I doubt we could have engineered such an effective action as they did all by themselves.

Organizers like to think of ourselves as bold revolutionaries, but the reality is that no one is bolder than the people directly affected by an injustice who have had enough. Ideally, organizers create a space for this boldness to blossom into action, but sometimes we get in the way; instead of organizing, we organizationalize.  And while we need real community-owned organizations–sustainable, strong bodies that can win new victories upon the foundations of old ones, our organizations don’t need to own, or even participate in, every victory.

I come back to Mayra’s story for inspiration whenever change feels unattainable. What can I be doing each day to build trust, build a shared vision and build relationships so that when conditions present themselves, we can spring into action? May we all live into our collective power.