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.

2 thoughts on “Working or Winning?

  1. The right teacher at the right time. More than that, a guardian for you. As we mature, we become more aware of the grace of gratitude.

  2. Shel Trapp was an inspiring mentor while alive and a constant reminder to live up to my ideals since his passing. I am blessed to have had the opportunity to learn from him.

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