Victory By Mistake

Recently I was training a group of organizers in Boston on direct action campaigns and telling a lot of stories to illustrate different tactics. Afterwards, a trainee came up to me and asked, “How do you have so many crazy organizing stories at your age?”

“By mistake,” I said.

For all of the exciting victories, funny direct actions and amazing things I’ve witnessed grassroots community leaders doing, there are many more stories of big mistakes. Actually, they’re not distinct. The stories of big wins are also stories of big mistakes. The difference between the failed campaigns and the successful campaigns is usually: Did we keep making mistakes long enough to get something right?

I’ve had more than my share of meetings where nobody showed up, press interviews with leaders where the total “wrong message” was printed, direct actions where no one was home, big events for which I didn’t prepare leaders well enough and they didn’t show up, and much more. These mistakes caused a lot of sleepless nights and a lot of stomach distress (I could write another whole blog called “Revolutions of the Stomach.”) But they also forced us to reconsider what we were doing; to be nimble and respond to changes.

Many organizers are afraid of making mistakes. And well we should be, because organizing is a tremendous responsibility. We should treat that initial reaction of fear with healthy respect. But the biggest mistake of all would be succumbing to it and letting the fear freeze us.

My organizing mentor, Shel Trapp, once related something his mentor told him when he was a new organizer:

“I will never fire you for making a mistake,” he said. “I will fire you for not taking action.”

Those words have been burned in my memory for most of my organizing career. Not the part about being fired, but rather the unacceptableness of inaction. Don’t get stuck in your head. Don’t get analysis paralysis. Move it forward, in community. Be thoughtful, but be bold and make it happen.

The great thing about making a mistake in community is that you have lots of people to remind each other to not make the same mistake twice.

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